The use of asbestos products in Australia came to a halt more than a decade ago, but the threat of asbestos exposure — and asbestos-related disease — continues to thrive.
The danger remains real. It’s not going away anytime soon.
An estimated 700 Australians still are dying annually from malignant mesothelioma, the rare and aggressive cancer caused by exposure to toxic asbestos fibers. Twice as many will die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer.
The National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Management and Awareness was a step in the right direction. Its goal is the elimination of all asbestos-related disease, but it will require increased vigilance and many, many more years before that goal is reached.
Australia once had the highest reported per capita rate of mesothelioma in the world. Although it no longer has that distinction, it takes decades to significantly change course with asbestos.
Asbestos was once used in Australia so extensively that it became ubiquitous. The abuse and misuse of the naturally occurring mineral left more than one generation at risk of exposure.
It was once coveted for its versatility, affordability and heat resistant capabilities with almost anything. It was used so extensively with no regard for its long-term toxicity, or the damage it could do.
It still lingers today most everywhere, becoming more dangerous as it ages and becomes more brittle. Experts estimate a third of the homes and commercial structures in Australia — most of those built before 1980 — still contain asbestos products.
Any remodeling, renovation or demolition of those structures sends the asbestos fibers airborne, where they can unknowingly be inhaled or ingested.
Asbestos is in the plumbing and electrical circuits, the walls, floors and ceilings. Although those involved in new construction are not at risk anymore, those same tradesmen working on older structures are very much at risk. Anything that is cut, drilled or punctured releases the microscopic fibers.
The long latency periods (20-50 years) between exposure and diagnosis also means those who worked in various industries many years ago still could be threatened today.
Experts are expecting as many as 25,000 more Australians to die from mesothelioma in the next 40 years, despite the cleanup efforts being made today.
The professions most at risk include:
- Shipbuilders and ship renovators
- Military, especially U.S. Navy
- Construction workers of different trades
- Factory workers
- Insulation workers and technicians
- Railroad workers
Asbestos is no longer mined here. It is no longer imported. Consumption peaked in the 1970’s, although it use remained strong in the manufacturing industry for another decade. Most states and territories banned it in the 1980s, but the national ban of the product did not begin until 2003.
The cleanup has been an arduous process. Asbestos remains a part of the Australian legacy. Many asbestos-containing products, including gaskets and friction materials, millboard, cord, yard and cement articles were imported until the early 2000s. They remain in place today.
Unfortunately, the prognosis for most being diagnosed with mesothelioma is not good. It typically comes with a 6-12 month life expectancy. Although mesothelioma takes decades to develop within a person, it metastasizes quickly once it has taken hold in the lining around the lungs or abdomen.
If diagnosed early, though, the prognosis is considerably better because of advancements in therapy. A multidisciplinary approach that includes surgery, radiation and chemotherapy has allowed survivors to live two, three, four or more years.
There are now immunotherapy and gene therapy drugs being tested in clinical trials. They have shown tremendous progress, encouraging doctors to believe that mesothelioma will one day be treated as a chronic disease that someone can live with, instead of a death sentence.
The key to treatment is finding a specialty center with experience in treating it. Because mesothelioma is a rare cancer, many oncologists rarely see it, and don’t know the best ways of treating it.
The Bernie Banton Centre at Concord Hospital (Sydney, New South Wales), the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital (Western Australia) and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (Melbourne, Victoria) are three of the top specialty facilities.
More information about clinical trials can be found at research facilities like the NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre, the Australasian Lung Cancer Trials Group and the National Center for Asbestos Related Disease (NCARD).
The National Strategic Plan wants to eliminate all risks of asbestos disease in Australia by 2030. The plan includes improvement in research, identification, removal, awareness and international leadership as it pushes for a worldwide ban of asbestos.
Until then, staying safe from asbestos disease is the goal. Vigilance is the key.
Tim Povtak is a content writer for The Mesothelioma Center and MesotheliomaPrognosis.com, an informational source for mesothelioma patients and families.