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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 KemberMesothelioma Caregiver
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 country is one of the world’s three highest regions for mesothelioma incidence rates.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Australians most at risk of mesothelioma include workers in the following trades:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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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