According to estimates by the Australian government, as many as one third of homes in the country are host to asbestos products as a result of the extremely widespread use of the material by the building industry in the second half of the 20th century.
Despite its long-established reputation as a material that poses a major threat to human health, asbestos remains surprisingly prevalent within built environments throughout Australia, and continues to take a serious toll on the lives of its residents.
This is due to the extremely widespread usage of asbestos by the Australia construction sector following the Second World War, even compared to other industrialised economies during the post-war boom years.
Australia reportedly had the highest per capita usage of asbestos during the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, while many parts of Australia served as major mining centres for the material, such as Wittenoom in Western Australia from the 1930s until 1966, and Woodsreef near Barraba in new South Wales.
Asbestos, which is a naturally occurring form of mineral fibre, has an extremely wide range of industrial applications, yet in Australia was primarily employed by the building industry. It is estimated that in excess of 60 per cent of all production and 90 per cent of all consumption of asbestos in Australia was for the purposes of cement production.
The Australian public has long been apprised of the fact that asbestos is poses a threat to human health and is linked in particular to a highly aggressive form of lung cancer called mesothelioma, but the government only took decisive action to deal with the issue surprisingly recently.
Asbestos has been subject to a blanket ban within Australia for barely more than a decade, with the government enacting a nationwide prohibition on asbestos and all products containing the material on December 31, 2003.
While the ban made the importation, storage, supply, sale, installation or usage of asbestos materials illegal, it did not have any retroactive effect and does not apply to asbestos that has already been installed in buildings or homes.
Some experts claim that as a result of the government’s dilatory measures to deal with the asbestos health threat, there a is strong likelihood that any Australian home built or renovated prior to the 1990s contains some forms of asbestos product.
Figures on the prevalence of the material’s usage within the building industry prior to the 1980s are staggering. Until the 1960s, 25 per cent of all new houses in the country made use of asbestos cement as cladding, while in Victoria it is estimated that 98 per cent of homes built prior to 1976 contain asbestos materials, most likely in the form of sheeting or roof installations.
As a result of the widespread usage of asbestos, Australia is currently host to the second highest-rate of mesothelioma deaths in the world, behind only the United Kingdom. Over 10,000 people have lost their lives to the mesothelioma in Australia since the early 1980s, while a further 25,000 are expected to succumb to the disease in the coming decades.
Because of the ongoing toll the usage of asbestos for construction purposes is taking on the lives of Australia’s today, it continues to be a major source of legal dispute for the building industry.
Buildings materials giant James Hardie has been the focal point of legal wrangling over asbestos usage in Australia, given the prominence of its role in the extraction and manufacture of the material throughout the 20th century, and vast extent of its liabilities to product victims.
In 2006, the NSW government concluded the Amended Final Funding Agreement with James Hardie, creating the Asbestos Injuries Compensation Fund (AICF) to compensate the victims of asbestos-related diseases contracted as a result of contact with the company’s products.
Controversy over the payment of compensation to asbestos victims by James Hardie nonetheless continues. The NSW government drew criticism earlier this year with its decision to expand the provision of credit to the AIFC to $320 million from the $214 million stipulated previously, in the event that payments from James Hardie - which comprise 35 per cent of its annual operating cash flow, fall short of claims.
While the strict nationwide ban on all asbestos enacted in 2003 means that there is almost no likelihood that houses built since the turn of the century contain asbestos materials, the government’s own Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency estimates that one third of all Australian homes still contain asbestos products.
This means that many homeowners and members of the building industry must still remain be mindful of potential asbestos-related risks when conducting renovation work – particularly on older houses.
The material may have been used for myriad purposes in Australian homes, including roof sheeting and capping, guttering, wall sheeting, vinyl sheet flooring, flexible building boards, imitation brick cladding, carports and sheds, fencing, concrete formwork and packing beneath beams.
Given that the material only poses a threat to human health when it produces dust containing asbestos fibres, experts advise that coated or undamaged products be left alone and untouched by homeowners.
While homeowners are legally permitted to remove asbestos from properties themselves, community awareness groups such as Asbestos Wise recommend that removal work only be performed by licensed removalists or hygienists, given the potential hazards of the material.