The NSW government must urgently confront the public health menace of loose-filled asbestos as a matter of urgency, leading health experts have warned.
CEO of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Peter Tighe said the NSW Health Department had played down the risks associated with loose-filled asbestos, which can cause cancer and mesothelioma when airborne.
“There was some pretty poor advice from the NSW Department of Health saying (if you) don’t go into the ceiling space or penetrate the wall cavities there’s little risk of associated with loose-fill asbestos but that’s not the case,” Mr Tighe said.
“Any air movement allows fibres to migrate. You only have to have a crack in your roof or your walls. You’ve only got to get a bit of movement there stirring up the timber, it gets picked up in the air then it moves into the internal living spaces: that’s where it’s so dangerous.
“We’re not trying to create hysteria but you should give people the facts … so they can make a judgement about their health and their family’s health,” he said.
The NSW Government must be holding its breath during Asbestos Awareness Month this November as it awaits the results of both a WorkCover investigation and a NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into how widespread loose-fill asbestos is in the state.
Premier Mike Baird will be nervously eyeing the ACT government’s experience, where the government will have to buy back and demolish 1021 homes found to contain the deadly loose-fill asbestos Mr Fluffy, which was sold as roof insulation in the 1960s and 1970s.
Last week, the Commonwealth government announced it would provide a concessional $1 billion loan to the ACT government to cover the buyback and demolition program.
While the problem is likely to be much larger in the ACT than in NSW, a handful of NSW locations abutting ACT – such as Queanbeyan, Jindaroo and Yass – look to have been affected. There is also a possibility that Mr Fluffy also may have been used by a NSW contractor.
Under the WorkCover investigation, free ceiling insulation tests are being offered to homeowners across 26 local government areas, including Parramatta, Bankstown and Warringah, to identify loose-fill asbestos in residential premises.
Chair of the Heads of Asbestos Coordination Authority Peter Dunphy told Government News that 502 NSW households in its nominated 26 local government areas had registered for property inspections and testing by licensed asbestos assessors, with none yet returning a positive result.
“The investigation into premises affected by loose-fill asbestos has found analysis records for asbestos ceiling insulation from the 1980s and 1990s identified 21 properties, including an apartment block, that have been identified in NSW as having the potential to contain loose-fill asbestos. This included two houses where ceiling insulation was removed, and two others that were demolished,” Mr Dunphy said.
He said WorkCover was working on protocols governing the technical and health risk assessments of affected properties.
“Control options are being developed, assessed and costed ranging from practical support to complete remediation. The NSW Government will carefully consider the options paper and the findings of the independent investigation to determine the most appropriate measures to assist affected householders.”
Mr Tighe said the NSW government needed to impress upon people how crucial it was to get their insulation materials tested, especially because people were often reluctant to do so in case their houses were condemned.
“This is not your usual form of asbestos, this is basically pure asbestos – it’s 95 per cent. They really need to go out and say, ‘this is important. Don’t avoid it’, then we can work out a strategy to address it.”
Submissions closed last week for the NSW parliamentary inquiry into loose-fill asbestos in NSW and public hearings will take place later this month.
The inquiry aims to ascertain the number and location of homes containing loose-fill asbestos as well as looking at actions taken by other state governments to confront the problem, the role of local and state governments in education and risk reduction and the requirements for property owners to inform renters, buyers, tradespeople and emergency services officers when asbestos is present.
Greens MP David Shoebridge, who sits on the Joint Select Committee on Loose Fill Asbestos Insulation whose report is due on February 16 next year, said NSW needed to get a move on and to learn from the ACT government’s handling of asbestos.
“The first thing we need to do is to get a detailed brief of evidence from the ACT government to understand what their response has been and what lessons we can learn in terms of protecting the safety of residents in NSW and the financial burden that the presence of loose-fill asbestos has delivered,” Mr Shoebridge said.
Mr Shoebridge said there was anecdotal evidence of sales of Mr Fluffy to NSW home renovators.
“There has been very little tracking of the use of loose-filled asbestos in NSW. On the face of it, NSW is years behind the ACT in addressing this.
“If there’s a need for the state to acquire property, ways to fund that investment is something that the committee should closely review. Our first obligation is to protect people from this appallingly noxious product.”
Labor MLC Steve Whan, who called for the parliamentary inquiry and whose electorate used to be Monarao, said the scale of the problem in NSW was likely to be much smaller than the ACT.
He said reports had surfaced of Mr Fluffy being found in Yass, Batemans Bay, Queanbeyan and Jindabyne but they tended to be isolated cases – not clusters – caused by DIY enthusiasts buying the insulation and installing it themselves.
“I suspect most of the problem will be focused there (locations next to ACT) but there are showing up in other areas in Sydney, people who have been contacting WorkCover for testing,” Mr Whan said.
“I suspect it will end up being less than 100 houses in the whole of the state, unless there was another company that we are not aware of.”
Mr Whan said he had been contacted by residents unwilling to get their homes tested, in case they were the only household in the street with Mr Fluffy.
He has called for the federal government to offer NSW a similar loan to pay for rescue packages for residents, should they be necessary, which could also boost reporting and testing, if people felt they would be compensated.
It’s a move Mr Tighe also supports.
“The problem is, as we found in the ACT, there is a reluctance of the general public to actually make the effort to call to say (whether) what they believe they have in their ceiling is loose-fill asbestos or some other product.
“In Canberra, people were worried about the loss of their asset value of their home and what would the impact be if they had a large mortgage (and had to move out).”
NSW local councils will also be keen to uncover how much loose-fill asbestos is in their area, especially because they often have to deal with the problem.
Councils run into asbestos in the course of their duties of overseeing land use planning (development applications and demolitions), managing contaminated land and regulating activities like DIY home renovations and waste transport and disposal. They also have to manage an emergency response to asbestos and educate the public.
Kiama Council had to kick into overdrive in 2013 after being hit by three tornadoes, which tore off asbestos roofing and wall sheeting and scattered it widely. The council’s swift response has informed other council’s disaster responses on how to manage asbestos.
The impact of asbestos – a class 1 carcinogen – on public health is likely to continue for many years, despite this kind of asbestos being made illegal in 2003.
Currently, around 700 people die each year as a direct consequence of asbestos exposure, with numbers set to peak in 2022. The cancer mesothelioma usually has a time-lag of between 15 and 25 years.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures have estimated that by 2020 there will be 13,000 cases of mesothelioma and a further 40,000 cases of asbestos –related cancers in Australia.
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