Australia has the second-highest mesothelioma death rate in the world, trailing only that of the United Kingdom. Mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure, is leaving its mark on the nation with more than 10,000 people succumbing to the disease since the early 1980s. According to cancer experts, an additional 25,000 people are expected to die from it over the next four decades.
The Australian Mesothelioma Registry reports that 641 Australians died from mesothelioma in 2014, the most recent public accounting of the disease. Those figures also indicated the disease toll was increasing over time, and different medical models point to a peak in deaths from mesothelioma between 2014 and 2021. The number of mesothelioma cases in the country is expected to reach 18,000, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
The demographics of Australian mesothelioma patients are consistent with the rest of the world. Of those who died from mesothelioma in 2014, approximately 80 percent were men, and the age range of those affected was 70 to 79.
The Australian Mesothelioma Registry, managed by the Cancer Institute of New South Wales, keeps a register of mesothelioma patients, collects pertinent exposure information and distributes annual reports about its findings.
Australia’s high incidence of mesothelioma corresponds with the country’s extensive history of asbestos use. Experts report that from the 1950s to the 1970s, the country had the highest per capita rate of asbestos use in the world.
The Australian Mesothelioma Register monitors asbestos exposure among trades, in addition to mesothelioma incidence. They say the occupations with the highest exposure risk include asbestos mining and jobs that produce a lot of dust such as sawing, sanding, drilling, grinding or handling asbestos-contaminated materials. Specific high-risk jobs include boiler workers, power plant workers, carpenters, railway workers and naval workers.
According to Australia’s National Dataset for Compensation Based Statistics, the workers who filed the most compensation claims between 2005 and 2008 included carpenters, electricians, power plant workers, plumbers, metal workers and telecommunication workers.
Construction companies, textile mills and many other production and repair facilities used asbestos in one way or another. In some cases, it was used long after it was banned in other countries. For example, amosite (brown) asbestos use continued well into the 1980s and was found in products such as cement board. In fact, asbestos was still used in friction materials and gasket products in the nation as recently as December 2003.
Parts of Australia were asbestos mining hubs. Crocidolite (blue) asbestos, one of the most toxic types of asbestos, was mined in the Western Australia town of Wittenoom from the 1930s until 1966 when the Wittenoom mine was shut down. Australia finally started regulating asbestos products in the late 1970s. The use of crocidolite (blue) asbestos was banned in 1967, while 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.
Asbestos was also mined from the Woodsreef mine, located near the township of Barraba in New South Wales. Woodsreef produced white chrysotile asbestos until the mine was abandoned by its operators in the 1980s, but approximately 25 million tons of asbestos waste remained at the mining site, with asbestos fibers visible. More than 25 years after mining operations ceased, the Woodsreef mine continues to leave a legacy of asbestos exposure.
During the 20th century, the Australian asbestos market was largely led by James Hardie Industries, a company that manufactured a wide range of building and insulation products and was involved with the mining, distribution and manufacture of asbestos and related products. James Hardie Industries owned asbestos mines not only in Australia, but also Canada and Zimbabwe.
Unfortunately, Hardie executives knew of the risks associated with asbestos mines and exposure to the airborne fibers, but the company never warned asbestos miners or plant workers of the risks. Wastes from the Hardie plants were distributed throughout the community for use in playgrounds, driveways and park paths, and the asbestos-contaminated waste was even 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.
Despite the bans, residents remain at risk for mesothelioma because of older construction, residential and commercial buildings. Older structures contain asbestos cement and other asbestos products. Demolition of any structures built prior to the asbestos bans is particularly dangerous, as is any renovation or remodeling project that puts individuals in contact with these locations or products.
Studies show that Australians most at risk for developing mesothelioma include individuals who were involved in the following trades:
Construction workers and carpenters may be at a particularly high risk of asbestos exposure. A study of 600 mesothelioma patients in the UK and Australia revealed that 1 in 10 retired carpenters born prior to 1950 would die of asbestos-related cancer.
Safe Work Australia is the nation’s government body that oversees 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:
Safe Work Australia created a Code of Practice on the management and control of asbestos in the workplace, which provides guidance on how to respond to asbestos exposure threats. It contains information on identifying asbestos materials, how to report asbestos properly 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.
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. 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, with many cases attributed to secondhand asbestos exposure.
Many of the miners and residents of Wittenoom suffered severe lung problems, including mesothelioma and asbestosis. Of the 7,000 individuals who worked at the Wittenoom mine from the 1930s until 1966, an estimated 10 percent 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 for developing mesothelioma are those who were employed by asbestos product manufacturer James Hardie Industries, which built plants in New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia. An estimated 50 percent of the asbestos claims filed in any given year are against James Hardie, according to statements made by the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
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 materials. Homes built before the mid-’80s are highly likely to contain asbestos, and 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 2008 Bernie Banton Law — named for a deceased mesothelioma sufferer who tirelessly campaigned for new legislation — allows citizens of Victoria to seek compensation if diagnosed with asbestosis, a progressive lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos fibers. Under the Bernie Banton Law, individuals may seek more compensation at a later date should their health problems develop into mesothelioma.
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 who were exposed to asbestos due to the environment or secondhand exposure.
In addition, 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.”
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.
In 2001, James Hardie Industries, the manufacturer of numerous asbestos products, established the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation with $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 percent spike in mesothelioma claims in 2013. By 2017, the fund will be short by an estimated $184 million.
Matt Mauney is an award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of professional writing experience. He joined Asbestos.com in 2016, and he spends much of his time reading, analyzing and reporting on mesothelioma research articles to ensure people in the mesothelioma community know the latest medical advancements. Prior to joining Asbestos.com, Matt was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. Matt also edits some of the pages on the website. He also holds a certificate in health writing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Read More