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Asbestos is fast becoming a dirty word in Australia. Due to the heavy use of this dangerous material in construction prior to the 1980s, many commercial and residential buildings throughout the country contain loose-fill, boards, shingles, tiles and other materials which contain asbestos. Australians are diagnosed with mesothelioma every year, and the cases are growing at an alarming rate.
In 1983, there were 156 people diagnosed with mesothelioma in the country. In 2008, there were 661 people diagnosed with the disease. Hundreds of people also die due to this illness every year. For example, there were 668 people diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2007, and 551 Australians died from the disease that same year.
These statistics are alarming, but they are reality. Many of these mesothelioma cases are due to the inhalation of asbestos fibres before the 1980s. Many Australians worked in industries that used this material heavily, and they breathed those deadly fibres into their lungs on a daily basis year after year. Those fibres collect inside the body and aren’t easily eliminated, and it takes more 20 years for signs of disease to become apparent. That is why so many people are dying today for asbestos fibres they inhaled many years ago.
Yet, the growing rate of mesothelioma diagnosis isn’t a result only of inhalation in the past. There are thousands of buildings throughout Australia that still contain some type of asbestos material. For instance, more than 1,000 homes are currently being bought back by the government and demolished because they contain asbestos insulation marked by Mr. Fluffy.
As long as asbestos remains in our homes and offices, it is a risk for Australian citizens. It is not harmful when left undisturbed, but it may easily release fibres into the air if licensed removalists are not contacted for safe removal and disposal during remodelling and other construction projects.
The Problem in Victoria
One of the most recent discoveries of potential asbestos contamination comes out of Victoria. The problem surrounds an old factory which is no longer in use. The factory was a heavy producer of asbestos prior to the 1980s, and authorities decontaminated all buildings at the site in the late 1980s. the property was also sealed and capped to prevent any remaining asbestos fibres from escaping into the surrounding community.
Unfortunately, many people worked in that factory before the dangers of asbestos became well known in the late 1980s. Many others lived in close vicinity to the factory and potentially breathed in air contaminated with asbestos fibres before it was capped and sealed. Since it takes 20 years or longer for signs of mesothelioma from asbestos inhalation to manifest itself, it makes sense that reports of mesothelioma cases are now starting to surface.
Between 2001 and 2013, there were 16 diagnosed cases of mesothelioma in the region of this factory. According to Michael Ackland, acting Chief Health Officer, this rate is slightly higher than what is expected for an area that size within that time period. This has sparked concern that many people in the area may have been exposed to unhealthy amounts of asbestos in the past, but it also raises the question of whether the factory is safe for the surrounding community as it stands today.
Addressing the Victoria Asbestos Problem
In order to determine whether the old factory continues to contaminate the air and soil with asbestos fibres or not, the Environment Protection Agency will oversee testing in the area. The testing will be conducted by an environmental hygienist without connections to the government or factory. The air in surrounding residential areas will be tested in addition to the soil and roof spaces.
There are also 10 residential structures in the area that will undergo testing due to previous connections to asbestos materials. If these homes are found to contain asbestos fibres in the air, roof spaces or soil, they may be considered dangers to the community just like the old factory.
The government will also talk to the 16 people diagnosed with mesothelioma to determine their connections to the factory. It is possible that at least some of them are former employees of the factory before it was decontaminated and capped. This means that they may have been exposed to asbestos fibres for many years before the dangers of the material were realized.
What Happens After Testing?
The test results will determine whether the Victorian factory and those 10 homes continue to present a threat to residents of Victoria or if the increasing rate of mesothelioma is due to inhalation of fibres prior to the 1980s. The course of action taken by the government will depend on the findings of those tests, so it is too early to predict what may happen in the area moving forward.
If the factory is determined to be a present health risk for community members, it is possible that the government will have it demolished and the site cleansed of all asbestos materials. More drastic measures may need to be taken if high levels of asbestos are found in the soil at the factory or in surrounding communities. Many community members may be impacted if asbestos fibres are found in the air within communities surrounding the factory.
Tips for Residents
It is important for all Australians to understand the risks of handling asbestos materials. Anyone believing that their home or office building may contain an asbestos material of any type should contact a licensed asbestos removalist. They can thoroughly examine the property to determine what type of asbestos is present, how much of the material is present, and whether fibres are currently contaminating the air.
Professional removalists can also take on the project of removing these materials and decontaminating the site so that it is safe. It is crucial that residents not undertake construction projects that involve these materials without the assistance of licensed removalists. There are companies in Victoria with the expertise and asbestos training needed to safely remove these materials without releasing deadly fibres into the air.
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