Hundreds of workers involved in the construction of a $1.2 billion children’s hospital in Western Australia fear Chinese building products may have exposed them to asbestos.
Officials with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) claim the atrium roof at the Perth Children’s Hospital project is “riddled” with asbestos and the inexpensive Chinese concrete panels put workers at risk.
Complaints surfaced after one of the 25 workers building the hospital cut into a sealed roof panel and discovered a white powder he suspected was chrysotile, which is also known as white asbestos.
Independent examinations on that roof panel confirmed asbestos in four of seven samples tested. Inspectors question if the rest of the 150 roof panels also contain asbestos.
Although Australia banned the import of asbestos products in 2003, the recent problems reported at the children’s hospital and other Australian construction projects underline the reality that hazardous asbestos products continue entering the country.
Asbestos Industry Association President Michael Shepherd told The Australian that customs officials check less than 5 percent of all imported products, and he asked for mandatory asbestos testing of all Chinese materials.
“That will be a cost to industry, but it’s a fraction of the cost in the long term in terms of health impacts and managing the asbestos,” Shepherd said. “The other thing we need to do is gather intelligence in China — we need to understand their asbestos industry and their manufacturing processes over there, so we can get a better handle on where the asbestos is being put into these products.”
Australian news reports show Yuanda Australia, a subsidiary of China-based manufacturing firm Yuanda Holdings Limited, supplied the asbestos-containing roof panels for the hospital’s construction.
The panels have raised alarms among all workers that other Yuanda building supplies may also be contaminated with asbestos.
While officials complete an audit of the construction materials, workers who cut, sawed, nailed and drilled the roof panels without wearing protection worry about asbestos exposure and its effect on their health.
Fueling their concern: The angle grinder used to cut the asbestos-containing roof panel created plumes of dust.
CFMEU secretary Mick Buchan said the dust “could have then filtered all the way down to the ground floor.”
“It could have gone through the air conditioning system…on the walls, anywhere. Asbestos fragments left uncovered in the area for a 24-hour period caused even more unease,” Buchan said. “We’ve got workers who dusted off their clothes on Monday night, hopped into their car and went home…it starts a whole train reaction.”
Three hundred workers at the Perth Children’s Hospital site signed an asbestos register to record their potential exposure to asbestos for future claims.
One worker told news media the dust from the cut panel was so thick it obscured his hands when he held them in front of his face. He fears his family may be victims of secondhand asbestos exposure, which is credited for the increase of mesothelioma diagnoses among women and children.
An outgoing Yuanda official told news agencies a supplier had provided a fake test certificate that claimed the building products were asbestos-free.
Yuanda also provided building supplies for the construction of the Perth Arena and the Fiona Stanley Hospital.
An independent review of Australia’s border control management carried out in March remains outside of public view.
Queensland Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace requested to make the review public.
“Matters of critical public health and safety, such as this, should not be the subject of secret, confidential reports,” Grace wrote to Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton. “The public has the right to know what measures the federal government intends to take to tighten current controls and ensure the 2003 ban on the importation of this deadly substance is 100 percent effective.”
Shadow Health Minister Roger Cook and other officials have called for disclosure of the results because they may reveal major gaps in border protection measures involving asbestos.
“We joined the Queensland government today in calling on the federal government to release the findings of that review, which the federal government has seemed to keep secret,” Cook told the media. “We have here a public health crisis, and it is the responsibility of the Minister for Health to keep the public informed, to reassure these WA workers that they have been looked after and to come forward with what measures he is taking to ensure that these issues don’t take place ever again.”