Deadly asbestos still claiming lives

Asbestos continues to kill hundreds of people a year in Australia more than two decades after it was phased out of building products.

Some victims may only have had contact with the deadly fibre during a home renovation decades ago, or from washing contaminated clothes. 

Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia president Barry Robson has seen victims of every tragic example of exposure.

‘‘I stopped going to funerals a long time ago,’’ he said, ‘‘it was just too much for me.’’

‘‘We’re still seeing lots of people presenting with mesothelioma and there’s still no cure.

‘‘It starts with shortness of breath.

‘‘And it’s a sudden loss of breath, from diagnosis to death is — on average — 155 days.’’

Parramatta and the surrounding suburbs have a long and unfortunate history with asbestos.

The construction products company James Hardie manufactured asbestos materials from its factory in Camellia until the early ’90s.

The ‘‘fibro’’ homes built from asbestos cladding were for decades synonymous with the western suburbs and, as such, the Asbestos Disease Association has long been based in Granville.

The association’s most strident campaigner for compensation, the late Bernie Banton, was a local of Northmead who worked at the Camellia factory.

Such is the fibre’s prevalence, Mr Robson expects asbestos diseases will be diagnosed for at least another 100 years.

‘‘We’re starting to see people present with asbestos disease from home renovations,’’ he said.

‘‘Every home built before 1987, or 99 per cent of them, will have asbestos products in them somewhere.’’

Mr Robson, his colleagues at the association, victims and volunteers have been raising awareness of the dangers of the deadly material for Asbestos Awareness Week. 

■Most people cannot tell if building materials contain asbestos just by looking at them; 

■Never cut, drill, scrape, water blast, disassemble or dump building materials that may be asbestos without taking the required safety precautions;

■Never clad over asbestos material unless it can be done without damage to the asbestos;

■When removing asbestos, wear disposable overalls, wet material to minimise dust, consult the Work Cover safety guide: www.workcover.nsw.gov.au;

■Asbestos was used in more than 3000 products before finally being banned in 1991;

■James Hardie was the largest manufacturer of asbestos building products;

■The company relocated offshore to The Netherlands, and later Ireland, in 2001, leaving the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation;

■It was later found to be short about $1.3 billion.

■James Hardie has since been required to pay more funding for victims compensation;

■The late Bernie Banton, who died of asbestos diseases in November 2007, campaigned to have James Hardie made responsible for victims’ compensation.

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