Asbestos was a commonly used fibrous mineral in Australia in the 20th century known for its heat resistance and tensile strength. The toxic mineral is the primary cause of mesothelioma cancer and it has significantly affected a number of Australians. From the 1950s through the 1980s, Australia had the highest per capita use of asbestos in the world and about a third of all homes in the country built between 1945 and 1987 may contain some asbestos.
The presence of asbestos in residential homes poses a problem for home renovators who are more inclined to rip up asbestos-containing flooring, cement or other asbestos-contaminated construction products. Renovation and demolition projects can disturb asbestos materials more than everyday wear and tear, causing workers in the construction industry to be more at risk of exposure.
When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they may become lodged in the lining of the lungs. Prolonged and repeated inhalation may cause the development of a tumor, which can take decades to develop and for symptoms to become present.
The typical mesothelioma latency period is between 20 to 50 years, which is when symptoms such as chest pains and respiratory problems may become noticeable. By this time, the mesothelioma is usually in its later stages and difficult to treat. This can lead to a life expectancy of one year, but with a prompt diagnosis and immediate treatment, an improved prognosis is possible.
Although asbestos may be present in residential homes, prolonged exposure to asbestos is most likely caused by occupational exposure. Australian miners are among those with the highest risk of exposure. Other occupations at high risk of exposure include, but are not limited to:
- Shipyard workers
- Auto mechanics
- Maintenance workers
As a result of resilient union campaigning, the use of asbestos in Australia was banned in 2003, but the harmful effects still remain. According to the Australian Council of Trade Unions, more than 500 Australians die annually from mesothelioma and up to 18,000 Australians are expected to die from the cancer by 2020. Historical figures suggest that for every Australian mesothelioma diagnosis, there is a lung-cancer or other asbestos-related disease diagnosis.
However, recent action has been taken to help minimize the effects of asbestos in Australia. In June 2010, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Australia Manufacturing Workers Union and the Cancer Council Australia prompted the national coordination of asbestos removal and the establishment of a the National Asbestos Management Review to develop a plan to improve asbestos awareness, management and removal.
For more information on the effects of asbestos in Australians, the Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council can provide valuable resources. Safe Work Australia, an Australian Government statutory agency established in 2009, works with the Commonwealth, state and territory governments to improve work health and safety and workers’ compensation arrangements, and can also provide information on asbestos use in Australia.
Guest Post: Kaitlyn Teabo is a writer for The Mesothelioma Center. She combines her interests in writing, cancer research and emerging scientific technology to educate the mesothelioma community about asbestos and its related diseases.
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Source: Australian Council of Trade Unions. Asbestos. Retrieved from www.actu.org.au/Issues/Asbestos/default.aspx