Controversy over Discovery of Asbestos on Rottnest Island

For many years now, Rottnest Island off the coast of Western Australia has been one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Known for its natural beauty and fine weather, it’s been especially popular among families looking for a relaxing outdoorsy holiday.

Recent discoveries of exposed asbestos on the island, however, may be threatening that popularity. Although the local government has issued a study that declares the asbestos deposit to be ‘low risk’ chrysotile or ‘white asbestos’ that isn’t much of a threat to health, many local activists and the President of the Asbestos Diseases Society vehemently disagree.

Not the First Time

The most recent discovery was made by a tourist staying in a bungalow on the island who spotted what he initially feared was blue asbestos, the most dangerous form of the mineral. The Rottnest Island Authority (RIA) immediately fenced off the area and sent the material for testing, announcing that it was actually the less dangerous white asbestos and that it posed no threat to visitors or inhabitants of Rottnest.

This isn’t the first time asbestos has been found on the island; in 2013 a little girl found a chunk of asbestos while collecting shells and brought the dangerous mineral back to her parents to show them.

However, activists and the Australian Medical Association (WA) disagree with this assessment, pointing out that breathing in white asbestos dust and fibres can cause cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis, and that it can take years for damage done by asbestos to show. There is in fact no accepted ‘safe exposure’ to white asbestos. As a result, they criticised the government’s reaction, suggesting it was trying to save money by evading a full-on asbestos removal project.

Finding the Source

Although the source of the asbestos on Rottnest Island has not yet been identified, the most likely source is similar to many other communities in Australia that have suffered from asbestos contamination: Home construction. As with many other residential homes all across Australia, many of the structures on Rottnest Island were built years ago when asbestos in many forms was a common insulation material.

Asbestos works very well as insulation and is fire-resistant. For decades it was used in various forms – often in the most dangerous fibrous form. As long as the asbestos remains intact it offers very little danger to residents. But when these homes are renovated or torn down, the demolition process often releases huge amounts of asbestos into the environment and becomes an active problem. And even without construction the asbestos can break down due to environmental stresses or other factors and invisibly contaminate the air of a home or surrounding area. And since the diseases caused by asbestos exposure can take years or even decades to manifest, it is often difficult to trace the symptoms to asbestos exposure.

Across Australia many homeowners are every familiar with the problem of asbestos as they discover the Mr. Fluffy product in their homes, often unbeknownst to them. While the Australian government has been buying contaminated homes from affected owners in order to tear down the structures safely and dispose of the mineral, there is currently no indication that any of the homes on Rottnest contain the Mr. Fluffy product. However, it is deemed very likely that the asbestos so far found on the island originated with construction and demolition of older structures. There is a theory that the asbestos found most recently came from roof repair work done at the bungalow in 2005.

Danger to Families

Why the long delay between the roof work and the discovery of the asbestos? Chances are good the material was buried and then disturbed by weather or other natural activities, revealing it to the open air. Despite the RIA’s assurance that the white asbestos posed no real threat, many families are thinking twice about booking vacations at Rottnest until the problem has been thoroughly investigated.

Many families don’t feel confident in their ability to identify asbestos in the first place, and with the medical authorities reminding them that there is no ‘safe’ level of exposure, they naturally worry that a few weeks or even days spent on the island enjoying the scenery could make them or their children ill – if not immediately, then down the line when making the connection between the disease and the vacation.

Rottnest, known affectionately as Rotto by its loyal holiday tenants and full-time inhabitants, has been voted in the top ten favourite places for Australians to visit over the years. However, that status appears threatened by this new health risk and the perception that the RIA is not taking a serious enough position on it and is failing to protect its visitors and residents from what could be a disastrous health risk.

For its part, the RIA continues to preach calm, pointing out that an isolated deposit of white asbestos very likely stemming from an isolated construction project is no reason to assume the island is riddled with the deadly mineral. It maintains that the asbestos found on the island at no time represented significant risk to anyone, and stresses that it reacted promptly to fence off the area and perform a proper clean-up of the area the moment it was made aware of the problem.

In the end, the real trouble for Rottnest Island may not be asbestos removal or even the possibility of sickened visitors or residents launching lawsuits in the coming years. The real trouble may be the simple matter of managing fear and bad publicity, two powerful forces that have combined to disastrous effect at many other places and services both in Australia and elsewhere. No one, after all, wants to put their family at risk in exchange for a few days of fun and relaxation, and whether it is necessary or not the RIA must be considering some further efforts in order to satisfy the court of public opinion, or risk not being anywhere near the top ten of holiday destinations for Australians in the years to come.

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