Latest figures reveal Australia’s rate of asbestos-induced mesothelioma continues to outstrip the rest of the world.

Reaffirming the importance of asbestos removal training, the Safe Work Australia (SWA) report reveals an incidence rate of a 2.2 per 100,000 person-years, compared with the global average of 1.2.

The Mesothelioma in Australia: Incidence (1982 to 2013) and Mortality (1997 to 2012) report, released in May 2015, is based on statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Australian Mesothelioma Registry (AMR).

The AMR figures reveal the incidence rate for Victoria and NSW in 2013 was 1.8, but in WA it was 3.9. Age at diagnosis ranged from 27-96, but most people were aged 70-84. Men were more likely to be diagnosed in their 70s, while the incidence for women was more evenly spread across age groups.

About 60% of people who participated in research had possible or probable exposure through work, the report says.

The highest incidence was for tradespeople, particularly those in construction and the metal and mechanical trades.

So what is mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is a fatal cancer that typically occurs 20 to 40 years after exposure to asbestos, although exposure does not always result in the disease, the SWA report reveals.

Mesothelioma of the pleura (a cancer affecting the protective lining of the lungs and chest cavity) is the most common form of mesothelioma in Australia and has accounted for approximately 93% of cases since 1982.

Mesothelioma of the peritoneum (a cancer affecting the abdominal lining) is less common and has accounted for approximately 6% of cases since 1982. The figures in the SWA report included all forms of mesothelioma.

History in Australia
In Australia, more chrysotile (white asbestos) than amphibole (blue and brown) asbestos was mined until 1939, the SWA report reveals. New South Wales, the first jurisdiction to mine asbestos, produced the largest amount of chrysotile until 1983, as well as smaller quantities of amphibole until 1949.

With the commencement of mining in Wittenoom in Western Australia in 1937, crocidolite (blue asbestos) dominated production until the closure of the mine in 1966. The main sources of raw asbestos imports were from Canada (chrysotile) and South Africa (crocidolite and amosite—brown asbestos). Consumption peaked around 1975 at approximately 70 000 tonnes per year.

In addition to imports of asbestos fibre, Australia also imported many manufactured asbestos products, including asbestos-containing cement articles, yarn, cord and fabric, joint and millboard, friction materials and gaskets. The main sources of supply were the United Kingdom (UK), the United States of America (USA), the Federal Republic of Germany and Japan.

With the closure of the crocidolite mine at Wittenoom, Australian asbestos production and exports declined. Imports of chrysotile also started to decline. Over 60% of all production and 90% of all consumption of asbestos in Australia occurred in the asbestos cement manufacturing industry, the SWA report confirms.

From around 1940 to the late 1960s, all three types of asbestos were used in this industry. The use of crocidolite began to be phased out from 1967, while amosite was used until the mid-1980s. Much of the industry output remains today in the form of “fibro” houses and water and sewerage piping.

By 1954, Australia was fourth in the western world in gross consumption of asbestos cement products, after the USA, UK and France, and first on a per capita basis. After World War II to 1954, 70 000 asbestos cement houses were built in New South Wales (52% of all houses built in Australia). In the past, exposure to asbestos was very high in some industries and occupations. It was as high as 150 fibres per millilitre of air (f/ml) in asbestos pulverisors and disintegrators in the asbestos cement industry and up to 600 f/ml among baggers at Wittenoom.

Regulation introduced in ‘70s
The use of asbestos products has been regulated in Australia since the late 1970s. A series of regulations adopted in the late 1970s and early 1980s by various jurisdictions imposed exposure limits of 0.1 f/ml for crocidolite and amosite and 0.1–1.0 f/ml for chrysotile.

In July 2003, a revised national exposure standard for chrysotile asbestos of 0.1 f/ml was declared by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. The prohibition of all forms of asbestos was adopted simultaneously under regulations in each Australian jurisdiction and by Australian Customs on 31 December 2003.

The prohibition bans the use of asbestos, but does not require the removal of asbestos products that were in place as at 31 December 2003. Therefore, some asbestos products are still present and need regulation to ensure their management or removal does not result in asbestos exposure.

Small decline since 2011 peak

In 2011, 690 new cases of mesothelioma were diagnosed in Australia. The preliminary number of diagnoses for 2013 is 575. The number of new mesothelioma cases has increased in most years since 1982, when national data first became available, and peaked at 690 in 2011.

The age-standardised incidence rate of mesothelioma increased from 1.1 new cases per 100 000 population in 1983 to a peak of 3.2 in 2010.

The rate fell to 2.8 new cases per 100 000 population in 2011. In 2011, the highest age-specific incidence rate of new mesothelioma cases occurred among males aged 85 years and above (49.9 cases per 100 000 population aged 85 years and above).

Deaths due to mesothelioma.

In 2012, 638 deaths were attributed to mesothelioma. The number of deaths resulting from mesothelioma increased between 1997 and 2012 and reached a peak of 638 in 2012.

In 2012, the age-standardised mortality rate for mesothelioma was 2.5 deaths per 100 000 population. The age-standardised mortality rate remained relatively stable over the 16 years for which data are available and ranged between a minimum of 2.1 deaths per 100 000 population in 1999 and a maximum of 2.7 in 2001.

The model work health and safety laws adopted by the Australian Capital Territory, the Commonwealth, New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania provide a consistent framework for the minimisation of asbestos exposure, the removal of asbestos and the management of remaining asbestos materials in workplaces.

What resources are available to deal with asbestos?
A national model code of practice, How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace, is available on the Safe Work Australia website to provide businesses with practical guidance on how to manage risks associated with asbestos and asbestos-containing material in the workplace.

The Commonwealth Government established the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA) to focus on asbestos-related issues at a national level. Along with developing a national strategic plan aimed at preventing asbestos exposure and eradicating asbestos-related diseases in Australia, the ASEA also undertakes research and awareness activities, including an examination of current disposal infrastructure and a study of community awareness and attitudes to asbestos.

For more details on AlertForce asbestos awareness training assessment and removal courses, go to www.alertforce.com.au/ohs-training-courses/asbestos-awareness/

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