Banning all forms of asbestos won’t end the problem of asbestos-related diseases.
It is merely a good starting point.
As more countries around the world move closer to an outright ban, Australia has become a reminder to guard against false hope. The Australian experience proves how unrelenting this problem is and how much more work must be done.
Fifteen years after its much-celebrated ban of the toxic mineral, Australia has just reached its peak of asbestos-related diseases such as malignant mesothelioma cancer.
“It took many years, and efforts from many organizations, for a complete ban to be put in place,” epidemiologist Dr. Matthew Soeberg of the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute (ADRI) told Asbestos.com. “But Australia’s asbestos legacy will continue for many decades to come, posing an ongoing public health risk.”
Australia Sets Example for Others to Follow
Soeberg is the lead author of a study published recently in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that examined his country’s ongoing asbestos problem, long after the laws were passed.
“The Australian asbestos consumption story continues to impose health, social and economic costs today,” he said. “In addition to the battles fought to achieve a complete asbestos ban, there are battles to preserve the essential disease surveillance and safety efforts that we will need to prevent future cases of asbestos disease.”
The fight continues.
There were 16,679 people diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in Australia between 1982 and 2016, according to the study. There were 766 diagnosed in 2016, the last year figures were available.
An estimated 4,048 asbestos-related deaths in Australia were linked to occupational exposure in 2016, according to the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation. More than 75 percent of those involved asbestos-related lung cancer.
“Almost 15 years later, Australia is only now seeing the peak of its asbestos-related disease epidemic,” the study concludes. “The Australian community needs to remain vigilant to the public health risks of exposure from existing asbestos.”
Long Latency Prolongs the Problem
The continued high rate of mesothelioma diagnosis stems partially from the lengthy latency period that is typical of the disease. It can take anywhere from 10 to 50 years after asbestos exposure before mesothelioma is diagnosed.
The consumption of asbestos in Australia, like in many industrialized nations, peaked in the mid-1970s. According to the study, more than 700,000 metric tons of asbestos were consumed during that period for myriad uses, much of it in the construction and shipbuilding industries.
Asbestos, a naturally-occurring mineral, was valued for both its versatility and affordability. Asbestos could be mixed with almost anything to improve strength and heat resistance.
Unfortunately, much of that asbestos is still around — in homes, businesses, machinery and vessels — and becoming more dangerous as it ages.
Plumbers, electricians and anyone renovating older structures are at risk today when asbestos products are disturbed.
The Unfinished Story
The threat remains, which explains the creation of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA) in Australia. The ASEA is the first national-level organization of its kind in the world.
The ASEA focuses on coordinating, monitoring, encouraging and reporting on the implementation of a National Strategic Plan on Asbestos Awareness and Management. It serves as a national framework for increasing awareness of the risks of exposure to asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).
The National Strategic Plan has six key goals:
- Raise awareness of the health risks of working with or being exposed to asbestos.
- Share best practices in asbestos management, including the transport, storage and disposal of the toxic mineral.
- Improve the identification of asbestos and information sharing about the location of ACMs.
- Promote safe removal of asbestos where ACMs present the biggest risk.
- Commission, monitor and promote research into the prevention of asbestos exposure.
- Take a leadership role in promoting an international ban on asbestos.
The ADRI in Australia is the world’s only research institute focused exclusively on asbestos-related diseases. It has been actively assisting other countries in working toward a ban.
Yet it also reminds them a ban doesn’t finish their work.
“Understanding the pathway to Australia’s asbestos ban is critical for the many countries continuing to use asbestos,” Soeberg wrote in the study. “However, it is important to realize that this is only part of an unfinished story.”