A busy mum, two little kids playing on the carpet in the corridor. She is busy pulling out an old gas heater from the cavity in the wall. Dust everywhere. She wants to recreate the old fashioned open fireplace that was there. The job will take a few days, she’s not in a hurry. Then the neighbour asks her gently, “Have you checked, we had asbestos behind our fireplace?” Mum’s blood goes cold. She looks at the kids.
‘Who in their right mind would buy asbestos?’ you may ask. After all the publicity, the growing numbers of tragic mesothelioma sufferers in Australia, the lung cancers, the famous court cases, the Hardies’ debacle.
There are three main ways you can still buy asbestos in Australia. First, a small number of components used in industry and the defence forces still contain asbestos in sealed conditions. For example, a shock absorber in the front wheel assembly of an aeroplane may contain an asbestos gasket. Certain specialised gaskets used in segments of the chemical industry may contain asbestos. The risk to workers and the general public is very small.
Then you can buy asbestos when you purchase gravel made from crushed masonry from demolished buildings that contained asbestos. Some 10 million tonnes of such bricks and concrete are recycled every year in Australia. A few tonnes of that may be recycled asbestos containing materials. Nevertheless, even if the total was only 10 tonnes or even just 1 across all of Australia, it’s too much if the gravel containing some of it is used as fill material in the school my grand daughter goes to. Or around the garage of the new home I’m building.
However, the worst risk is associated with buying houses that have asbestos containing materials. Not only is that the worst risk, but by being multiplied hundreds of thousands of times across the country the likelihood increased that over time many people will be exposed.
Buyer beware! It will only be accurate knowledge, continuous vigilance, caution or luck that will keep these dangerous fibres out of your lungs. Any renovation may increase the risk. Any damage to such materials will increase the risk. Any sanding of such materials will increase the risk. Any passing trucks that generate vibration may increase the risk.
No one, not any expert, nor any miner of asbestos fibres, or manufacturer of asbestos containing materials has ever said that more asbestos fibres in the lungs is better than less.
All real estate institutes ought to insist that the properties their members handle are not exporting the danger of asbestos to yet another generation. It’s not illegal to sell such property, nor – as yet – is it a legal requirement to alert the buyer that the structure has asbestos. Don’t believe the ‘asbestos is safe if undisturbed’ assurance. If it can be disturbed, one day it will be. Whose children will be exposed then?
So ask before you buy: is this building asbestos free?
Dr Yossi Berger
National OHS Co-ordinator
Australian Workers’ Union