Asbestos: The Dirty Word in Australia

chrysotile asbestos fibers

Of all the words in the English language, “asbestos” is the only one that angers me or moves me to tears.

It wasn’t always this way.

I grew up in an era where asbestos was commonplace. The building industry used it extensively because of its affordability and durability. An estimated 98 percent of all homes constructed in Australia before 1971 contained asbestos products in one form or another.

I lived in homes and attended school in buildings constructed of asbestos-containing materials and used products containing asbestos — completely oblivious to the danger this posed to my health.

My ignorance concerning asbestos ended when I learned asbestos kills people. My husband Brian would be one of them. A short period of breathlessness at age 52 led to his diagnosed of pleural mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer.

He developed the disease after inhaling asbestos dust when he and his family lived in the asbestos mining town of Wittenoom 45 years prior to his diagnosis. His prognosis: Less than a year.

As I struggled to come to terms with this tragic news, I could not help but wonder how Brian’s exposure to asbestos dust all those years ago could be the reason for his illness. Other than recent episodes of breathlessness, he was in excellent health.

What I didn’t know then was that the latency period between asbestos exposure and the onset of mesothelioma is typically 20 to 50 years.

Mesothelioma Is a Cruel Disease

As I witnessed the devastation it inflicted on Brian’s once strong body, I grieved for the capabilities he lost along the way.

I also grieved for the things I lost: The sense of well-being when I spent time with him, and the comfort I found in his loving arms.

Although this was the worst time of my life, I could not expect him to make me feel better. He needed me. It was my turn to be strong. During the two years of his survival, I needed all the strength I could muster.

Living in expectation of his death was the cruelest torture. When the end came for Brian, a part of me died with him.

Lessons I Learned About Asbestos

Almost 15 years have passed since Brian died. During that period, the facts I’ve learned about asbestos are frightening.

Asbestos is indestructible, and it’s just as deadly now as it was when it first was mined.

There are two categories of materials that contain asbestos: Friable and nonfriable.

Light pressure can easily crumble, pulverize or turn friable asbestos products to dust. They usually contain high levels of asbestos, making them extremely dangerous. When damaged, the loosely held asbestos in the material becomes airborne and may be inhaled by those in close proximity.

Examples of friable asbestos products include:

  • Spray-on asbestos fire retardants
  • Thermal lagging used in pipe insulation
  • Low-density boards
  • Backing on old vinyl tiles
  • Boiler insulation
  • Fire-retardant material on steel work
  • Loose-filled asbestos insulation

As a rule of thumb, any asbestos-containing material that can be easily disturbed is considered friable. This may also include nonfriable materials damaged over time, the elements or human intervention such as home renovations.

Examples of nonfriable asbestos-containing material include crushed, broken or deteriorated asbestos cement sheeting, known as fibro in Australia.

Nonfriable asbestos refers to products made from cement or other bonding compound with 10 to 40 percent asbestos. These types of products accounted for more than 97 percent of the building products used in the construction of residential housing products in Australia.

Examples of nonfriable asbestos-containing material include:

  • Asbestos cement sheet
  • Asbestos cement-molded products
  • Bitumen-based water proofing
  • Vinyl floor tiles

Ticking Time Bomb in Australia

Hundreds of old homes constructed with fibro still stand in Australia. Each of them is a ticking time bomb.

Although many people consider them low risk, any damage breaks down the bonding material holding the asbestos fibers, making the asbestos friable and dangerous when disturbed.

There is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

While we may take precautions to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm, our fate lies in the hands of those around us.

If someone in our neighborhood demolishes a building containing asbestos without using a certified asbestos removal company, their negligence can result in deadly asbestos contamination that affects all neighbors.

The only way to protect ourselves from their negligence is to spread awareness of asbestos and its deadly consequences.

Despite Australia’s national asbestos ban enacted in December 2003, officials discovered imported asbestos from China in a number of buildings recently constructed and other still in construction.

Although the asbestos-containing products in these buildings will be safely removed, I wonder how many modern buildings containing asbestos building products have gone under the radar.

How many innocent lives will be lost in the future because it?

  1. Asbestos & You. (n.d.). What is the Difference between Friable and Non-Friable Asbestos? Retrieved from http://asbestosandyou.com.au/catalog/lp_friable_non-friable.htm
  2. Victorian Government. (n.d.). Types of asbestos-containing material. Retrieved from http://www.asbestos.vic.gov.au/about-asbestos/types-of-asbestos

Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer. Her website can be found at www.lean-on-me.net

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