• WORDS Gerard McMahon - Partner Turner Freeman

Combating Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is a unique mineral. It's fibrous, heat resistant and has high tensile strength. It has been used since Roman times. Three types of asbestos have been mined commercially: white asbestos (Chrysotile), brown asbestos (Amosite) and blue asbestos (Crocidolite).

Asbestos was widely used in a variety of products in Australia until recent times. It was used primarily in insulation and building products until the mid-1980s, and brake linings containing asbestos were available in Australia until 2001. The use of asbestos in building products was so common that any home built before 1984 would have some building products containing asbestos, if only in the eaves linings. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common for entire houses to be built from asbestos cement sheets. Asbestos was also used in vinyl tiles, carpet underlay, office air conditioning systems, cigarette and wine filters, adhesives, gaskets, theatre curtains, a range of protective clothing and even Christmas decorations.

When asbestos fibre becomes airborne (for example, through cutting or breaking fibro sheeting) and is inhaled, it can cause lung disease as many asbestos fibres are lodged in the lung and remain there. There are four basic types of asbestos disease: • Benign pleural disease; • Asbestosis; • Lung cancer; and • Mesothelioma

Most asbestos-related disease occurs in people who worked with asbestos-containing products over a number of years. In Newcastle, many who worked at the State Dockyard, BHP Steelworks (and other similar enterprises) and in the building and construction industry during the period 1945 up until the early 1980s have contracted the asbestos-related disease. Nowadays, asbestos has been removed from most workplaces, but some older workplaces still have "fibro" sheeting on the rooves and walls.

Even though most asbestos-related disease occurs in individuals who worked with asbestos-containing products, mesothelioma – a cancer of the lining of the lung and abdominal organs – can occur in an individual who has only had brief contact with asbestos products. For example, as a consequence of a weekend's worth of home renovation work.

There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos when it comes to mesothelioma. Cutting or breaking up a few fibro sheets is enough to cause it. It is relatively rare for mesothelioma to occur as a consequence of such very low exposure, but there are still hundreds of documented cases of it happening. Unfortunately, I know this from first-hand experience. Factors such as asbestos fibre type and genetic predisposition are thought to be key ingredients in low exposure cases.

In recent years, "do it yourself" home renovation work has been at an all-time high. Home renovators are particularly at risk of contracting mesothelioma. There is a temptation to dismiss the risk of contracting mesothelioma as the home renovator would not notice that he or she had inhaled asbestos dust. The problem is there is a latency period- on average, 35 years- from the time of exposure to the time the disease emerges. The only way to safeguard yourself if you intend performing home renovation work is to have your home inspected and any asbestos building products removed by a licensed contractor.

An individual who develops the asbestos-related disease as a consequence of exposure to asbestos at work has the right to make a claim on the Dust Diseases Authority of NSW which will pay a pension and all medical costs. In addition, that person can claim a lump sum from a former employer, the manufacturer of the asbestos products or the occupier of the premises at which they were exposed. A person who contracts mesothelioma as a consequence of home renovation work can only make a claim against the manufacturer of the product.

Gerard has more than 25 years of experience in personal injury law and 13 years of experience representing clients suffering from various dust diseases.

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