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Asbestos continues its deadly attack

It’s time that governments, regulators and industry join forces to evaluate the extent of the Asbestos hazard and determine a long-term eradication program.

Master Plumbers has restated its call for more to be done to identify and remove hazardous asbestos domestically and in commercial and public infrastructure.

CEO Peter Daly said while intact asbestos materials may not pose a threat, many buildings, heater flues, pipes and boilers constructed with this material are starting to degrade, which can allow the release of hazardous fibres.

 “There are about 650 asbestos-related deaths every year in Australia, and the numbers are not reducing,” Mr Daly said.

 “This is a huge issue for our industry and potentially a huge public health issue.

 “Governments - state, federal and local - and the regulators need to actively evaluate the size of the issue and introduce a long-term eradication program.”

 Master Plumbers position is reinforced by a  KPMG report for James Hardie (the major building-supply manufacturer involved in the production and distribution of products containing asbestos until 1987), which reported 392 mesothelioma claims reported in the 2018 financial year.

This was a 5 per cent increase on the previous year.

Asbestos experts say the bulk of compensation claims are coming from the "third wave" of asbestos victims.

"Initially, claimants were mining asbestos in the James Hardie mines, and then it was the users of James Hardie products — the builders, plumbers, electricians who may have installed asbestos," said Peter Tighe, head of the federal government's Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency  in an interview with Fairfax newspapers.

"The third wave is the people who have been exposed peripherally ... maybe they worked in a school or hospital where they were exposed to asbestos fibres, or, often, they were renovating their house."

Although the sale of all forms of asbestos was banned right across Australia in 2003, there remains a large amount of asbestos-containing materials in the Australian built environment.

As such, asbestos remains one of the biggest risks to plumbers. According to the Australian Government’s Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, at least one in three Australian homes contain asbestos – most commonly homes built or renovated prior to 1990.

This previous reliance on asbestos products gave Australia the undesirable statistic of having the highest per-capita asbestos consumption level of any nation, reaching a peak in the 1970s.

Plumbers are most likely to be exposed to asbestos via water and drain pipes, older hot water units, roofing, tanks, boilers and pumps, however the risk is also present in cement sheets, electrical fittings, floor tiles and plastics among other products.

But despite the potential hazard, asbestos-containing materials cannot be identified from sight alone, and so any possible dangers must be treated with the utmost caution.

Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are classed as either friable or non-friable. The former can be broken up with your fingers, for example pipe lagging, meaning it is easy to breathe in. Only a Class A Licenced Asbestos Removalist can remove friable asbestos, however both types of ACMs pose significant health risks.

The dangers of asbestos are well known and have become increasingly more so in recent decades.

Asbestos fibres are generally thinner than a strand of human hair and can be invisible – but the inhalation of airborne asbestos fibres can lead to long-lasting and serious health concerns, such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.

The majority of asbestos-related illnesses emerge after being exposed to inhaled fibres even over a limited or short-term period, however can take decades to develop.

Asbestosis is a chronic and progressive lung disease, which can take up to 20 years to develop after exposure to asbestos. The disease causes scarring in the lungs, which restricts breathing and can potentially be fatal.

Mesothelioma is a relatively rare cancer that accounts for less than one per cent of cancers diagnosed in Australia. According to the Cancer Council of Australia, there were 675 deaths caused by mesothelioma in 2015, but it is predicted that the total number of diagnosed cases in Australia will reach 18,000 by 2020.

The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency reports that in 2015 there were an estimated 4,152 deaths in Australia due to asbestos-related diseases.

This figure incorporates victims of mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, larynx cancer and ovarian cancer.

Experts believe that Australia had the highest per capita rate of asbestos use in the world between the 1950s and 1970s and this reflected in the fact that the majority of people with asbestos-related disease are over 65, given a disease such as mesothelioma can take up to four decades to develop.

Fortunately, there is more education and awareness about asbestos and the dangers it poses, as there has been previously and a range of resources and information available to assist plumbers and other tradespeople who may be exposed to asbestos.

The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency advises that workers who may potentially be exposed to asbestos must be trained to wear disposable overalls, gloves and a cartridge half face mask.

Master Plumbers offers discounted training to its members on working with asbestos and tips and advice are available on the website. All plumbers can access this training via our partner Plumbing Industry Climate Action Centre.

This includes practical tips about being on-site with potential asbestos-containing materials – such as wetting materials with a low-pressure water spray before starting a job to reduce the amount of dust and the potential for asbestos becoming airborne. It is vital that this is a low-pressure spray as a high-pressure water spray can cause asbestos to become friable.

Key to Master Plumbers awareness program is that workers should never use power tools or other equipment on materials that may contain asbestos, unless they have undergone asbestos awareness training. Power tools such as drills or angle grinders have the potential to unsettle dust and release asbestos fibres, which can be inhaled.

Ultimately, the advice is clear. If you have any doubt about a potentially asbestos-containing material, avoid continuing with the job until the area has been checked and given the all clear by a licensed asbestos removalist.

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