THE recent High Court decision in the James Hardie case will come as a welcome relief to asbestos victims and their families but the full impact of asbestos in Australia is yet to be felt.
The High Court found last week that seven James Hardie directors breached corporate law in relation to the James Hardie asbestos compensation fund.
The outcome of this case is a very welcome one and gives us a timely reminder that corporate responsibility exists and those who try to avoid it will eventually be brought to account by our regulators and courts.
There are many people who will feel this closes a sad and tragic chapter in our history.
Unfortunately, the evidence points to the contrary. Deaths from asbestos-related diseases have not yet peaked and they are not forecast to peak until 2020 because of the extended latency period for this type of disease.
It takes between 20 and 50 years from exposure to the development of the cancer.
In 1962, Dr Jim McNulty diagnosed the first mesothelioma case in Australia in a worker employed at CSR’s blue asbestos mine at Wittenoom.
In 2010, 642 Australians died from mesothelioma and a further 112 from asbestosis.
Researchers estimate that for every death from mesothelioma there are another two from lung cancer caused by asbestos.
More than 2000 Australians dying each year from asbestos-related disease is a terrible toll.
In the next 20 years, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Australians will be diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease.
These are terrible diseases. Asbestosis is scarring of the lungs usually caused by high levels of asbestos exposure. Breathing becomes progressively more difficult and oxygen therapy is required. It slowly suffocates its victims.
Mesothelioma is an insidious disease and can be caused by quite low levels of exposure.
Most people with mesothelioma die within 18 months of being diagnosed.
The first wave of asbestos victims includes those who handled the raw fibres.
Among this number are asbestos mine and mill employees and factory workers like the great campaigner Bernie Banton, who got a job at James Hardie’s Camellia facility in Sydney’s western suburbs in 1968 and worked there for six years.
Banton worked in a group known as the Snowmen because they were covered from head to toe with white asbestos dust.
He died of mesothelioma in 2007.
The second wave of asbestos victims includes those who handled asbestos products, the chippies who built with fibro, the plumbers who lagged pipes with asbestos, the railway workers, the electricians and the power station workers.
The third wave includes those who never worked with asbestos.
These are men and women who built, renovated or demolished a house, garage or fence containing asbestos, or washed asbestos-laden clothes.
And people exposed at home as children from playing with asbestos pieces or those such as Lincoln Hall, who died recently aged 56 from mesothelioma, having helped his dad build a cubbyhouse from asbestos as a child.
Recent research from Western Australia is that the toll from this third wave is rising.
It’s easy to forget that asbestos wasn’t completely banned in Australia until 2003 and thousands of homes and workplaces around the country still contain this deadly material.
The Gillard Government is awaiting a report, expected in the middle of the year, from the Asbestos Management Review, which is investigating arrangements for managing asbestos and whether improvements can be made.
The Government is also funding research into these terrible diseases – research to improve diagnosis and treatment options.
Australians love getting in and having a go – renovating and fixing things around the home – but need to take care not to expose themselves or their families to asbestos.
About a third of homes built between 1945 and the late 1980s contain some asbestos products – in walls, ceilings, eaves, kitchens, bathrooms, vinyl floor tiles, sheds and garages.
In good condition and if undisturbed these pose little risk, as the fibres are bound together in a solid matrix.
Get advice before renovating by contacting your local work health and safety authority or health department.
Shorten is the federal Employment and Workplace Relations Minister