The Australian Mesothelioma Registry tracks cases in the country. It reports 642 Australians died from mesothelioma in 2020, the most recent public accounting of the disease.

Different medical models point to a peak in deaths from mesothelioma between 2014 and 2021.

A 2021 research study said almost all mesothelioma cases are asbestos-related. It cited the Australian Faculty of Occupational Medicine guide on Occupational Cancer. It reported asbestos levels close to background levels in urban environments cause mesothelioma.

The demographics of Australian mesothelioma patients are consistent with the rest of the world. Approximately 80 percent were men. The average age was 75 years old.

The Australian Mesothelioma Registry keeps a register of mesothelioma patients. It collects exposure information and distributes annual reports about its findings. The Cancer Institute of New South Wales manages the register.

“When Brian was diagnosed with mesothelioma, caused by his asbestos exposure in Wittenoom, my first reaction was shock, then denial. His illness came 45 years after leaving the town. Since then, he had remained fit and healthy. It’s unbelievable the asbestos he had inhaled four decades ago suddenly became lethal.”
Lorraine Kember
Mesothelioma Caregiver

Asbestos and Mesothelioma in Australia

Australia’s high incidence of mesothelioma corresponds with its asbestos use. It had the highest per capita rate of asbestos use in the world from the 1950s to the 1970s.

The Australian Mesothelioma Register monitors asbestos exposure among trades. Occupations at risk include asbestos mining and jobs that produce a lot of dust. Examples include sawing, sanding, drilling, grinding or handling asbestos-contaminated materials. Boiler workers, power plant workers, carpenters, railway workers and naval workers faced high risk.

Australia’s National Dataset for Compensation Based Statistics tracks legal claims. Workers who filed the most compensation claims between 2005 and 2008. They included carpenters, electricians, power plant workers, plumbers, metal workers and telecommunication workers.

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Construction

Three construction workers on a job site reviewing plans

Construction companies used asbestos after other countries banned it. For example, amosite (brown) asbestos use continued well into the 1980s. Products such as cement board contained it. Asbestos was still used in friction materials and gasket products in December 2003.

Mining

Parts of Australia were asbestos mining hubs. Crocidolite (blue) asbestos is one of the most toxic types of asbestos. The Western Australia town of Wittenoom mined it from the 1930s until 1966. Australia finally started regulating asbestos products in the late 1970s. It banned the use of crocidolite (blue) asbestos in 1967. The use of amosite (brown) asbestos continued until the mid-1980s. The ban on chrysotile (white) asbestos finally came about 20 years later, at the end of 2003.

Miner in a tunnel using a pickaxe Reply -101 881 400 400 0° Mixed 100% 1x

In February 2019, Indigenous elders asked the Australian government to clean up Wittenoom. Aboriginal families living in the area have among the highest mortality rates of mesothelioma in the world. Rain and erosion have displaced asbestos waste into creeks that flow into the Fortescue River. The government said they are “working through this complex issue to provide certainty to the community. We will continue to engage in discussions with the community and relevant stakeholders.”

Asbestos was also mined from the Woodsreef mine, located near the township of Barraba in New South Wales. Abandoned by its operators in the 1980s, approximately 25 million tons of asbestos waste remained at the mining site. Asbestos fibers were visible. More than 25 years after mining operations ceased, the Woodsreef mine continues to leave a legacy of asbestos exposure.

Manufacturing

James Hardie Industries led the Australian asbestos market during the 20th century . It manufactured building and insulation products. It mined, distributed and manufactured asbestos products. James Hardie Industries owned asbestos mines not only in Australia, but also Canada and Zimbabwe.

Older factory worker in a manufacturing plant

Hardie executives knew of the risks associated with asbestos mines and exposure. The company never warned asbestos miners or plant workers of the risks. Wastes from the Hardie plants went throughout the community for use in playgrounds, driveways and park paths. It used to make “Hessian” (burlap) bags that carried fruit and vegetables. The injury resulting from exposure to asbestos in James Hardie plants and mines is almost immeasurable.

Bans

Despite the bans, residents remain at risk for mesothelioma. Older construction in residential and commercial buildings remains a risk. Older structures contain asbestos cement and other asbestos products. Demolition of any structures built before the asbestos bans is particularly dangerous. Renovation or remodeling projects remain risky in older homes.

Who Is at Risk in Australia?

Australians most at risk of mesothelioma include workers in the following trades:

  • Construction
  • Carpentry
  • Plumbing
  • Electrical engineering
  • Insulation workers
  • Shipbuilding
Did You Know?
Construction workers and carpenters remain at risk of asbestos exposure. A study of 600 mesothelioma patients in the UK and Australia showed that one in 10 retired carpenters born prior to 1950 would die of asbestos-related cancer.

Australia’s Regulations to Prevent Exposure

Safe Work Australia is the nation’s governing body that oversees the proper handling of asbestos in the workplace. Australia’s Work Health and Safety Regulations act sets laws for the management of asbestos in workplaces, including the:

  • Handling of naturally occurring asbestos
  • Removal of asbestos
  • Training of asbestos workers
  • Licensing requirements of abatement professionals

Safe Work Australia created a Code of Practice on the management and control of asbestos in the workplace. I provides guidance on how to respond to asbestos exposure threats. It contains information on identifying asbestos materials, how to report asbestos and how to manage the risk of exposure in a job setting.

The Code of Practice serves to protect workers from exposure to asbestos on the job.

Mesothelioma Diagnoses by Location

The largest number of Australians who died of mesothelioma lived in New South Wales. That was the first state in the country to mine asbestos, and it produced the largest amount of chrysotile and amphibole asbestos. The incidence of the disease in this state nearly doubled in the 20 years between 1987 and 2006. Interestingly, the rate among females in New South Wales tripled during that time as well. Many cases were attributed to secondhand asbestos exposure.

Did You Know?
Many of the miners and residents of Wittenoom suffered severe lung problems. Of the 7,000 individuals who worked at the Wittenoom mine from the 1930s until 1966, an estimated 10% have died or will die of mesothelioma. The town was removed from Australian maps, power supply was cut and only a handful of residents remain.

Other Australians at risk include those employed by James Hardie Industries. It built plants in New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia. An estimated 50% of the asbestos claims filed in any given year are against James Hardie.

Other states with high rates of mesothelioma deaths include Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania. The rankings tend to reflect the size and population of the states as well as the presence of natural asbestos or asbestos mines.

According to Australia’s Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, a third of all homes in the country contain asbestos. Homes built before the mid-’80s likely contain asbestos. Those built between the mid-’80s and 1990 are likely to contain at least some asbestos products. Homes built after 1990 are unlikely to contain asbestos materials.

Examples of products in the home that may contain asbestos include:

  • Roofing, flooring and wall sheeting
  • Fencing
  • Putty and glues
  • Concrete framework
  • Guttering
  • Plumbing
  • Electrical

Treatment Centers for Mesothelioma in Australia

Because of the growing number of mesothelioma diagnoses, the country placed more emphasis on offering quality treatment. New research facilities like the Bernie Banton Centre at Concord Hospital in Sydney are solely dedicated to mesothelioma research. Other new clinical programs are being developed regularly.

Australian hospitals offering treatment for mesothelioma cancer include:

Bernie Banton Centre at Concord Hospital
Sydney, New South Wales

The world’s first stand-alone research facility dedicated to the treatment and prevention of asbestos-related diseases. The facility houses the Asbestos Disease Research Institute.

www.asbestosresearch.org.au/

Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital
Perth, Western Australia

This large teaching hospital offers new, experimental immunotherapy treatments for mesothelioma. Sir Charles Gairdner has the only designated comprehensive cancer treatment center in Western Australia, with an impressive staff of oncologists and thoracic surgeons.

www.scgh.health.wa.gov.au/

Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre
Melbourne, Victoria

This is the only public hospital solely dedicated to cancer treatment, research and education. Peter MacCallum, also known as Peter Mac, boasts the largest cancer research group in the country.

www.petermac.org/

Clinical Trials

A number of research organizations and facilities offer participation in clinical trials related to the search for better treatments and new drugs in the fight against mesothelioma.

Pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology companies are typically the sponsors for these clinical trials. A list of open trials can be found online through these organizations.

For example, one Australian clinical trial is investigating the value of the immunotherapy drug tremelimumab for people with mesothelioma who had a relapse after chemotherapy or who didn’t qualify for surgery. This antibody drug stimulates a patient’s immune system in ways that help it attack the cancer.

Australian Compensation Related to Mesothelioma

For families of individuals who have died from mesothelioma, the Fatal Accidents Amendment Act of 2008 grants compensation to both victims and their surviving family members. Damages are awarded for pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.

Bernie Banton Law

The 2008 Bernie Banton Law allows citizens of Victoria to seek compensation if diagnosed with asbestosis. It is a progressive lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. Individuals may seek more compensation at a later date should their health problems develop into mesothelioma.

Wrongs Act

The Wrongs Act of 1958 granted full compensation for loss of income to anyone who was sickened due to exposure to asbestos on the job. But the law did not give the same rights to those individuals who were exposed to asbestos in non-occupational settings. In 2006, a new amendment granted compensation to individuals exposed through the environment or secondhand exposure.

Foreseeability

The law of foreseeability states that a company or defendant “may not be liable for a disease or injury caused to a person unless the disease was ‘foreseeable’ in the event that a duty was breached.” This law is particularly relevant in cases involving low-level exposure, as with individuals who did not encounter asbestos on the job but, rather, through secondhand exposure or exposure in the home. Defendants can argue that the plaintiff’s minimal exposure could not have created “a reasonably foreseeable risk of injury.”

Causation

Also of issue is “causation,” which states that the plaintiff must prove that any negligent exposure to asbestos caused the development of their disease. To what extent one has been exposed has long been an issue in Australian courts, and the argument is bound to continue, experts say.

James Hardie Cases

In 2001, James Hardie Industries established the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation. It contains $293 million in funds to assist victims of asbestos exposure. Executives assured the public that the funding was sufficient to meet all future asbestos claims. The company then relocated to the Netherlands and announced in 2003 that the fund was “grossly under-funded.” Australian officials say James Hardie faces $1.87 billion in payouts over the next 30 years because of a 20% spike in mesothelioma claims in 2013.

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