Could Asbestos Be A Hidden Danger of Extreme Weather?
If you’ve been watching the news recently, it will have been hard to avoid what’s going on in Australia. Record temperatures have led to bushfires that have been raging for months, destroying millions of acres of scrubland, forests and parks. As well as having a devastating impact on the country’s flora and fauna, the wildfires have also encroached on human settlements, and led to the loss of dozens of lives.
While the effects of wildfire smoke on air quality have been well documented, there may be a less appreciated threat: that of deadly asbestos. Australia has a legacy of asbestos use that’s worse than most countries, and it seems likely that many of the buildings consumed will have contained the substance. The threat of wildfires – and other extreme weather events around the world – should be a warning that our passive policies towards the substance may be due for a change.
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Asbestos in Australia
Like many developed countries in the 20th century, Australia was enamoured with asbestos. Asbestos products drove construction efforts in the post-WW1 and WW2 periods, despite the health effects of asbestos being recognised as early as 1898. Asbestos was widely used in asbestos cement (known as ‘fibro’), roofing and fencing, as well as loose fill roof and cavity insulation. By the mid 1960s, at least 20% of all Australian housing stock contained asbestos.
Driving this boom in asbestos products was the Wittenoom crocidolite asbestos mine, one of the largest and most active asbestos mines in the world. Wittenoom was Australia’s only supplier of blue asbestos, and remained open between 1943 and 1966. By 1986, there were 85 confirmed deaths from mesothelioma alone traced back to the Wittenoom mines. The town would eventually be degazetted – have its town status removed – and removed from all maps and signs in 2007, and is now an asbestos-riddled ghost town.
The most dangerous forms of asbestos continued to be used in Australia right up until the late 1970s, and asbestos products in general remained popular until the late 1980s. Action to remove loose fill asbestos insulation began in 1989, and was still ongoing as recently as 2014, when the government agreed a buyback of many affected properties. Asbestos was not completely banned in Australia until 2003, and the country still has one of the highest death rates from asbestos-related diseases in the world.
Asbestos remains an issue in Australia, as it does in many countries around the world. As with those other countries, action is being taken to prevent asbestos from becoming an active threat, but not necessarily to remove it. While asbestos must be removed from commercial buildings where it presents a threat to health, this usually only includes asbestos which is friable (such as loose fill or lagging), and not asbestos which is considered stable, such as tiles and boards.
Asbestos laws also only apply to businesses and not individuals, meaning that degrading asbestos may be present in thousands of homes around the country, and many more around the world. This isn’t the worst approach – asbestos containing materials (ACMs) do not pose an active risk if they remain undamaged, and removing them raises the risk of exposure.
However, such asbestos laws often underestimate the potential for accidental damage, or indeed the effects of inclement weather. Take the example of asbestos in schools: while wall tiles may be considered stable, students may pick at or otherwise damage them without realising. The same may be true of asbestos in a business setting, where vehicles or tools could cause accidental damage, as well as the possibility of water damage or other accidents.Read the full story here
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