The Australian Workplace Relations Minister, Julia Gillard, this morning launched the latest Australian Mesothelioma Registry. SafetyAtWorkBlog took the opportunity to ask Safe Work Australia some specific questions about asbestos and government policy. Their responses are below.
The government has awarded the contract for the new Australian Mesothelioma Registry to a consortium led by the Cancer Institute of NSW.
According to a media release issued by Safe Work Australia:
“The new Australian Mesothelioma Registry will collect more detailed and accurate information on mesothelioma and related asbestos exposure than has been possible in the past. This information will be vital to the development of policies on how to deal with asbestos found in buildings and other infrastructure in Australia.”
Safe Work Australia provided SafetyAtWorkBlog with recent data on mesothelioma and asbestosis cases in Australia. The first graph below shows the number of new mesothelioma cases in Australia by year for men and women.
Answers from Safety Work Australia
SafetyAtWorkBlog put some questions on asbestos-related issues to Safe Work Australia and Minister Gillard’s office. Questions and responses are below:
Q: The Mesothelioma Registry is a step in knowing where cases have occurred. This allows for health and support services to, perhaps, be targeted but the Registry in itself does not remove the hazard from the community and is an acknowledgement that once one has meso, there is little more than palliative care available. There is a mention in the media release of gathering background data but is this a similar process to “Trackers” who trace the cause of cases of sexually transmitted diseases, or tuberculosis, or SARS? How much resource will be allocated, through the Registry funding process, to maintain or increase the investigation of mesothelioma origins?
A: “The Australian Mesothelioma Registry will receive funding of more than $460 000 per year. This will be used to collect information on all new cases of mesothelioma and information on asbestos exposure of patients diagnosed with mesothelioma which will be able to be used to investigate mesothelioma origins. The Registry will collect information from consenting patients diagnosed with mesothelioma including:
- complete occupational history
- complete residential history (to ascertain whether the patient ever lived near an asbestos mine, manufacturing plant or other potential source of environmental asbestos exposure)
- information on the types of work tasks undertaken that may have involved asbestos exposure, and
- information about possible non-occupational exposure to asbestos – for example did the patient ever live in an asbestos clad house, renovate, build or demolish an asbestos clad house, fence, garage etc, install or remove asbestos insulation”
Q: The Tasmanian Government has pledged to remove asbestos from that State by 2020 through the establishment of a dedicated Asbestos Unit. The appeal of this strategy is that it is removing the risk of meso and other asbestos-related illnesses at the source. Would the government consider trialling such a program in a defined area on the mainland? Perhaps a non-remote regional city so that research does not involve expensive travel?
A:“In Tasmania there has been increasing support for a shift from the current approaches to managing asbestos containing materials (ACMs) in situ, to consideration of setting time frames, and accurate classification of ACM conditions, to achieve full removal of ACMs. An Asbestos Unit has been established to provide advice regarding the cost of an appropriately resourced prioritised removal program for Government buildings, and achievable timeframes for the removal of ACMs in Government buildings. The Asbestos Unit will also coordinate Government policy relating to the disposal/sale of Government buildings with ACMs. Following this, the Asbestos Unit will investigate the feasibility of the removal of ACMs from privately owned buildings, including workplaces and residences. This will include examining various incentive schemes.
A suitable model could be considered in other jurisdictions, although considerable work has already been done on prioritisation of ACMs for removal from schools around the country. Removals are always based on assessment of the risk the material poses. Whether Governments would consider providing funding or incentives for removal of ACMs from domestic premises is a policy matter.
Should it be agreed that the new asbestos model regulations contain requirements for mandatory building registers for every commercial building and an assessor to prepare an audit of the location, condition risk and control measures of the ACMs, this will improve knowledge of asbestos in buildings so that prioritisations of removal may occur based on evidence.”
Q: Is there a funding model for the meso register that allows for the register to generate revenue itself so that it is less reliant on direct government funding?
A:“No. However Safe Work Australia is committed to fully funding the Registry”
Q: There are several regional support groups for meso victims that struggle to promote their services throughout the general community. GARDS (Gippsland Asbestos Related Disease Support Inc ) is the one I am most familiar with. Does the Minister plan to relaunch the meso register in the broader context of victim support? It would seem heartless to know where the cases are but not provide support.
A: “Yes. The Government via the NHMRC is providing considerable funding for research into the better diagnosis and treatment of asbestos-related disease (See http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/your_health/issues/asbestos.htm#other)
The Government has asked Safe Work Australia to develop a nationally consistent approach to the compensation of work-related asbestos diseases. This work is underway.
Representatives of the the asbestos disease support groups are being invited to the launch and to a meeting afterwards to discuss the Registry and to seek their views on especially on the collection of information from patients. Representatives of these groups also attended a forum which we held in February 2009 on how to collect better information on mesothelioma, the results of which have led us to fund the new Australian Mesothelioma Registry.”
Q: How will the register be accessed? Who will access it, and what criteria must an “applicant” meet in order to gain access?
A: “The Registry will publish detailed annual statistical reports which will include incidence and mortality, nationally and by state/territory, age standardised and age specific rates as well as statistical information on exposure patterns – industry, occupation and non-occupational exposure.
In addition the data from the Registry will be made available to researchers following ethics approval. This is necessary due to the confidential nature of the information collected on patients.”
Q: Will the register be required to publish annual statistical maps showing the location of meso cases, perhaps by postcode or suburb?
A: “As stated above the Registry will collect information on patients current residence and on patients’ residential and occupational histories and will publish a detailed annual report. The Management Committee of the Registry will need to consider what additional information should be included in the report. A statistical map based on current residence of mesothelioma patients may be useful information regarding health resources needed for treatment. However, it may not be very useful as far as examining of the casues of the mesothelioma cases due to the long latency of the disease (20 – 50 years) and the possibility that many people will have moved to a new location in the years following exposure. Over time, the detailed information collected should allow for various types of investigations.”
Q: We all know that asbestos is a grade 1 carcinogen. We also know that it is the only known cause of mesothelioma. The US Office of the Surgeon General has issued a statement that says “there is no level of asbestos exposure that is known to be safe and minimizing your exposure will minimize your risk of developing asbestos-related disease” (there is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos) – why do Australian regulators still adopt a philosophy that it’s OK to be exposed to a little bit of asbestos?
A: “Your question raises a very difficult policy issue. The current policy as outlined in the National Code of Practice for the Management and Control of Asbestos in Workplaces is that in situ asbestos containing materials (ACMs) “must be appropriately managed to ensure that the risks of exposure to airborne asbestos fibres are minimised.
The ultimate goal is for all workplaces to be free of ACM. Where practicable, consideration should be given to the removal of ACM during renovation, refurbishment, and maintenance, rather than other control measures such as enclosure, encapsulation or sealing .”
There is a real possibility that removing in tact (sic) ACM such as fibro walls which are in good condition and where this is no renovation or refurbishment being undertaken may increase the risk of asbestos exposure to workers and to the community. It is hoped that the detailed information on occupational and environmental exposure to asbestos of mesothelioma patients that will be collected by the Australian Mesothelioma Registry will help inform the policy on the best way to deal with the asbestos in our buildings and other infrastructure.” [link added]
Q: Does the federal government know many Australian schools have asbestos in them?
A: “Several state governments have schools asbestos registers – see: http://education.qld.gov.au/asbestos/register.html
As mentioned earlier considerable work has already been done on prioritisation of ACMs for removal from schools around the country.”