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Find out why Australia has one of the highest rates of asbestos related diseases in the world

Wednesday, 2 November 2016


            CS – Chris Smith /FS –Fiona Seaton /C1,2,3, etc – Callers


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CS       We will get back to your calls in just a moment but it is National Asbestos Awareness Month and it’s also a time to remind everyone about the dangers of asbestos, especially if you are doing home renovations. Well we are about to look at what you can do legally if you’ve been affected by an asbestos related disease and thanks to Turner Freeman and our Legal Matters Segment, we’ve got a $100 Westfield Voucher to give away as we do, well usually on Tuesdays but because of the Melbourne Cup, our Legal Matters Segment has been pushed over to today, but Turner Freeman Lawyers provide a range of specialised legal services including compensation and negligence law, asbestos litigation, superannuation and disability claims, family law, Wills and estate and property law. Their NSW offices are in Sydney, Parramatta,  Campbelltown, Penrith, Newcastle and Wollongong and they also have offices in Queensland, South Australia and WA. If you’ve got a legal question on the subject of asbestos, give us a call right now. 131 873. Now, Fiona Seaton is an Accredited Specialist in personal injury law and also specialises in dust diseases litigation. She’s based at the Turner Freeman office in Sydney and she joins me now. Fiona. Welcome to the program.

FS       Thanks very much. Good afternoon.

CS       Australia has one of the highest rates of asbestos related diseases in the world. Why? 

FS       Basically after World War II there was a scarcity of building products and we just love asbestos cement building products in this country. It became the most common building material we had and as a result we became the highest per capita consumers of asbestos cement building products and so as a result, we have the highest rates of asbestos related diseases sadly.

CS       And what are the diseases that accrue from breathing in particles of asbestos?

FS       Well there are two diseases that are not terminal, happily – usually – one is called asbestos related pleural disease and that’s where there’s sort of an inflammation and thickening of the lining of the lung  – then there’s asbestosis which is like a scarring on the lining of the lung and that really means the lung loses elasticity and air can’t transfer very well and so and so. That can be very very severe or it can be quite mild. The two terminal ones are the ones you hear about mainly is mesothelioma, which is a cancer in the lining of the lung and there is also peritoneal mesothelioma which is cancer in the lining of the –peritoneum and then lung cancer of course and the risk of lung cancer is greatly increased when people have been smokers as well as breathing asbestos fibres.

CS       And the most common ways that people are exposed to asbestosis?

FS       Well it’s really changed. In the past – the most common way was from mainly men working either mining or milling asbestos and then after that – that was called the first wave – it’s often referred to the first wave – then the second wave was workers using asbestos in industry so manufacturing asbestos cement building products, making things like fire doors, lagging steam pipes on boilers in ships or on trains for example, but then over the last 20 years or so there’s a growing concern about what’s described as the third wave which is people diagnosed with mesothelioma after having very low or short term exposures to asbestos and most of that’s often in the home during home renovations or home maintenance.

CS       So we are talking about old homes?

FS       We’re talking about really any home that was built or renovated before about 1987. So you know, that’s many many homes. I think the estimate is in about 1 in 3 homes have asbestos in them.

CS       Right. And so if you’re doing a renovation – if you’re knocking down say a wall in the home, how do you know whether you are potentially exposed to asbestos?

FS       That is such a good question and it’s so hard to know – the basic answer to that is you can’t know. The only way you can really know if you get a scientific analysis down and there are people that do that and it’s not very expensive to do that, but you really can’t tell by looking at it, so unless you know that the home’s been built – you know – after the late 1980’s, then you can be pretty confident that there’s going to be asbestos there and it’s much better to be safe than sorry.

CS       Yeah. If I am intending to buy a house that is built pre-87, do I have to – you know if I got an inspection done, would they pick up the fact that the house had asbestos – or would that be a particular inspection that I had to order? 

FS       I think there’s a particular inspection that you have to order. I don’t think normal sort of property inspections when people are buying houses will automatically be able to identify that – I think property inspection reports now probably refer to it much more than they would have in the past, but you really need to get a specialist to have a look.

CS       And if you’ve got asbestos in your home and you still want to carry out renovations, should you be doing it yourself or should you be getting another person in or another firm in to handle the asbestos?

FS       That’s the key question really isn’t it? I think – I mean the basic fact is that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, so I think it would be just generally better to get someone who’s professional to do that. But you are actually legally allowed in NSW to remove a maximum of 20 square metres of bonded asbestos like fibro or corrugated fibro roofing. You can do that yourself without a licence, but if you want to do anything more than that, you have to go and get yourself trained and get a licence yourself or you have to use a licensed person.

CS       Right. A licensed person. And what about when someone comes to Turner Freeman and says I think – you know I’ve got a diagnosis of some kind of asbestos related disease and I want to take action, how do they go about that action and is there a great requirement to provide evidence to prove what may have exposed you to asbestos?

FS       Yes there is. You know you can’t succeed in any clam without proving it and having evidence of it – so in terms of things like home renovations – of course it’s much more difficult and people aren’t really conscious necessarily of renovations in the past and whether or not they breathed in asbestos at the time – I guess all you can do is say to people – well what works been done in your home and who did it and you ask other people what the…….

CS       But then the hardest thing there – as you just said – you’ve got to find out who built your home and you may have purchased this – you might be the third owner.

FS       That’s right – so we spend a lot of time trawling through Council records for example and trying to speak to people who might have done the renovation work – the trades people who might have worked on a home – you can actually send away samples of fibro for example if it’s still there – you can get it tested and you can get experts to look at it and tell you who manufactured it.

CS       But the evidence of asbestos in a home is not necessarily – the builder doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s instantly guilty right?

FS       Oh I think that’s right. Yes.

CS       You’ve got to be exposed to particles of this?

FS       You need to disturb it.

CS       Right.

FS       So you need to break it up – drill it – saw it – I mean you just – you know the advice and part of this National Asbestos Awareness Month is to say to people – don’t do those things – don’t cut it – don’t break it – don’t disturb it – don’t use any power tools on it ever – don’t water blast it – all those sorts of things – but if it’s in a bonded state – which is that there’s no loose fibres coming out of it and it’s painted for example, then it is relatively safe and it doesn’t pose a health risk – but once you start disturbing it and breaking it up you’re in trouble – so.

CS       Yeah – and in terms of finding you know that you’ve got some kind of asbestos related disease, does it show up down the track – is it like a skin cancer or do you get sick soon after being exposed?

FS       That’s such a good question really the trouble for us as lawyers is going back because really anything between 10 years you know – latency period for an asbestos disease would be the minimum – you don’t usually recognise so – but really for mesothelioma it can be more like 40 years or 45 years between an exposure and when the disease….

CS       45 years?

FS       And it can be longer – it can be up to 75 years I’ve read. So really this is the difficulty so what would be the best thing to do in our view is to make sure that if you’re doing work on the home and you think there might be asbestos there – get a professional in there obviously is the first thing – take a whole number of precautions that are set out in the WorkCover Guide to working with asbestos. If you are going to do it yourself you know below the maximum 10 square metres but also document it. So take photos of the material – keep a sample wrapped up very securely – if you can – you know make a note of the dates on which work was done so that you’ve got a record because it’s very hard you know 20 years later when someone like me says “oh well when did you breath in asbestos?” And you are going to think – oh I think I did some work – was it you know 1990 or you know….. so really it’s a matter of trying to keep as much records as you can when any works done but certainly the big message is don’t do it yourself.

CS       Okay. Malcolm – go ahead. 

Caller 1 – Malcolm 

Malcolm         G’day Chris – Thanks for taking my call mate.           

CS       That’s okay.

Malcolm         I’m a resident at Kurnell and it’s quite poignant that you are talking about asbestos at the moment, because I’ve just got a call from one of my neighbours who said that the Caltex Refinery have got a DA in to build an asbestos pit on the Caltex Refinery. Now the neighbour’s told me that we have got to get online and protest before 5 o’clock today or we won’t be heard but no-one in the suburb knows about it Chris – just wondering if you could chase up with Caltex anything you can about this because it’s a disgrace mate.

CS       Well if that’s going on – it’s not only rude but also somewhat inappropriate that they not tell residents – it’s just ridiculous. Let me look into that for you Malcolm and see if I can find any truth in it.

Malcolm         Good on you mate – much obliged. 

CS       Alright Malcolm we’ll go in search in all of that. So would a place like an oil refinery – they could have a certain amount of asbestos on a property – let’s not say its Caltex but say it’s another oil refinery but would they have to dump the asbestos in a safe area or their own property? 

FS       Yes it’s actually illegal to dump asbestos and just for – getting back to home renovators for a minute – it’s also illegal to bury it in your backyard or put it in your normal garbage – you can bet your house on the fact that there will be a lot of asbestos in something like an oil refinery – there’s no doubt about that.

CS       Right – okay.

FS       So yes – there are specific sites where you are able to you know take asbestos

CS       deposit it….

FS       Yes – and we also say to people to locate your local Council….

CS       Yeah.

FS       They will be able to tell you the nearest landfill site where you can do that legally.

CS       Fantastic. I’ve run out of time but Fiona, thank you very much for yours.

FS       Pleasure.


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