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Drill into that wall at your peril!

January 6, 2014

While the figures are not certain, current estimates suggest about 2500 Australians are diagnosed with asbestos related disease each year.  This is despite the fact that all forms of asbestos were banned from use in Australia in 2003.

Our best guess is that the number will continue to increase until 2020 or later, a scary trend experts largely attribute to the number of Australians launching into home maintenance and renovation tasks, without being aware of the hidden risk of asbestos.

Most of us are aware of the first and largest wave of Australians impacted by asbestos - those who were exposed through the process of mining the mineral, before we knew the deadly impact it could have. Then came the wave of those exposed through working in the trades - either in construction or other industrial uses.

While mining has ceased decades ago there are still some people being diagnosed today after being involved in the mining and transport of the product.  And alarmingly, tradies of many kinds - plumbers, electricians, carpenters and others - continue to be exposed and are subsequently diagnosed with asbestos related diseases. It is important to note that people exposed to asbestos at work, like those in the construction and related trades, continue to make up the bulk of newly diagnosed people with asbestos related diseases.

Lots more work is needed to better train the tradies of today to spot and deal safely with asbestos.  This is a lesson being learned by our Kiwi cousins dealing with the fallout of the Christchurch Earthquake.   As is so in New Zealand, there is still lots of asbestos in Australian homes, public buildings and workplaces, and we ignore it at our peril.

Asbestos is a very personal issue. Everyone has stories. A former neighbour of mine was diagnosed with mesothelioma after exposure as a kid when her dad worked on the railways. She played along with the other kids in asbestos heaps in railway yards around regional WA.

My 19 year-old son is an electrical apprentice.  He was nine years old when the national ban on its use was established, but he has and will continue to work in buildings and projects where asbestos lurks around too many corners. We had an asbestos fence around our last house and our current home, constructed in 1980, is still likely to have some asbestos, somewhere.

There were over 3000 building products containing asbestos manufactured or used in Australia between the 1940s and the 1980s. It comes in many forms and few people can claim with confidence to be able to quickly pick the asbestos containing material from the safe alternative that has been in more recent use.

We've sought to make things a little easier for the weekend warrior to pick the nasty stuff from the safe gear and are offering a free online learning package - with plenty of photos and practical tips for the home renovator.

Our new "eLearning" course takes about an hour and I'd be surprised if there were many who could not learn something by working their way through it.

There is also plenty all Australian governments, local, state and national, can do to help the public identify, log and manage asbestos in a safe, sensible responsible manner. 

It will take constructive, consistent and well thought out efforts and investment to deal with the asbestos time bomb. We look to the Australian Government's new Asbestos Eradication and Safety Agency to lead the charge.

In the meantime - before you pull up the flooring, knock out the bathroom or drill into a fence - get your head around the prospect the there is plenty of asbestos about.

Knowing what to look for and if you find it - what to do - is the best way forward.  Like everything - knowing a bit more about what you are doing is the key.