Issue #132
February 2023
Lockdowns floods and bushfires spark a mesothelioma warning

There are concerns over the number of Australians who may have been exposed to asbestos during recent crises in Australia, raising concerns about diseases, such as, mesothelioma, an incurable and aggressive cancer. Whilst asbestos has been banned for many years in Australia, there is still a huge amount present in buildings.

Speaking at Pathology Update 2023, Associate Professor Klebe says it is possible that many Australians were exposed to asbestos during bushfire and flooding events and due to a surge of home renovations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Around 4,000 Australians die every year from asbestos related diseases, such as mesothelioma. The Australian Mesothelioma Register shows that an increasing number of exposures are now linked to home building work, which increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic; there is also concern about potential exposure related to the recent natural disasters in Australia.

“During the bushfires, fire fighters had to go into burnt buildings, many of which were old farm buildings containing asbestos. The same goes for the recent flooding; there would have been asbestos floating around in the debris. It is less dangerous when it is wet, but people may still have been exposed through contaminated water during the clean-up operation. The effect of this may not be seen for years, as the typical latency between exposure and disease is more than 30 years,” said Associate Professor Klebe.

Mesothelioma is caused by inhaling asbestos. Tumours typically develop between 10-60 years after asbestos exposure and may develop on the surface of the lungs, abdomen, heart or testes. Only 6.3% of those diagnosed live longer than five years.

“This is a really important issue and it’s not going to go away. We’re seeing around 700-800 new cases of mesothelioma each year. Unfortunately, it is a hugely aggressive cancer and the life expectancy for most mesothelioma patients is approximately 12 months after diagnosis,

“The problem is that because the latency of the disease is many years and there is not a screening test, by the time a clinical problem develops, people may have forgotten that they were exposed. If anyone believes they have been exposed to asbestos - whether at work, in the home or in the community, they should record their exposure on the National Asbestos Exposure Register. Individuals can then use the register in the future if they develop a problem and need to recall the exposure event. Exposure information may also be required for future compensation claims.

“People are still dying from mesothelioma. Houses that were built before the mid 80’s will more than likely contain asbestos which may cause problems, especially when it is disturbed. If in doubt about whether a property has asbestos when doing home renovations, the best thing to do is get it tested before starting work, which can be done through the local council,” said Associate Professor Klebe.

The import of asbestos or goods containing asbestos into Australia is prohibited under the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956 (Import Regulations). An Australia-wide ban on the import, manufacture and use of all types of asbestos and products containing asbestos took effect from 31 December 2003.[1]

“Asbestos is still widely used in the Asia Pacific region, including in Indonesia and Vietnam, because it is a cheap building material. Despite the ban on importing asbestos into Australia, it is still getting into the country. When people import building material, they often source the cheap option which will often contain asbestos, meaning they are unknowingly exposing themselves. It is therefore important they check exactly what it is they are buying,” said Associate Professor Klebe.





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