The harms[ii] of legacy or in situ asbestos[iii] in Australia were created in Australia during the 20th century, with expansive distribution of asbestos containing products manufactured by James Hardie Industries Ltd (“James Hardie”), CSR Ltd (“CSR”) and others until the 1980s. The powers that be allowed these activities to continue, despite irrefutable evidence of the deaths caused by exposure to its carcinogenic fibres.
Today, Australia, as a nation, is still experiencing and acquiescing to mass deaths during the 21st century from largely or entirely preventable asbestos-related diseases. Legacy asbestos now sits (or lurks) in government, commercial and residential properties in various forms and continues to pose real and substantive lethal threats to the public.
Actions taken by James Hardie and CSR to prevent ongoing loss of life in Australia were, and remain, minimal given the scale of lives still at stake. More broadly, actions taken by all levels of government to protect the health and lives of Australians seem inadequate and highly complacent, especially in residential settings.
Our survey of 43,000 households found that very few Australians are properly aware of the nature, gravity, and magnitude of the harms posed from legacy asbestos and are taking appropriate precautions to save their own and others’ lives. Indeed, most lacked basic knowledge about asbestos dangers and consequences. More than two thirds did not know what asbestos is or could not positively identify asbestos as dangerous to health. Among those who did know that asbestos is dangerous to health, most were not aware that:
Asbestos Awareness Australia Ltd is a registered charity, is run entirely by volunteers, and had received no external funding at the time the website was launched. Asbestos Awareness Australia was set up:
To achieve these objectives, the company provides public access to widely sourced information on asbestos risks and impacts, including the associated medical, legal, and political debates.
While pieces of the asbestos story are available from other public sources and academic publications, the broader legal, political, and medical context and evidence is commonly lacking. Without this context and evidence, the magnitude of the asbestos crisis and its horrific consequential harms appear to be poorly understood by scholars, policy makers, public health officials, and the community at large.
Our research confirms that the playbooks (and public relations strategies) of the asbestos industry and its supporters since the 1970s have been to promote the following messages within public forums:
These same (or similar) messages are still reflected in scholarly and official material in Australia (and elsewhere), and are, at best misconceptions, and at worst, misleading.
Overall, our research suggests that public messaging on asbestos risks in Australia is carefully controlled, played down and qualified:
As law professors and experienced financial and policy analysts, we conclude that the present public health and risk policy settings result in a deadly cocktail with well-known but preventable outcomes:
Despite claims or implications to the contrary, there are no “zero risk” or “safe” policy or public heath settings (including the present ones) to resolve the threats of legacy asbestos across Australia; only less worse options, that on balance, save the most lives.
Some policy progress has been made over the last 20 years, with the banning of new asbestos products in Australia and the introduction of workplace safety obligations around the handling and control of asbestos in employment settings. However, substantive progress since then to minimise fatalities from asbestos-related diseases has seemingly stalled or regressed. We question whether any substantive lessons have been learnt by the public health sector and policy makers in Australia over the last century.
We contend that the old asbestos game continues, with people’s lives still being traded-off for short term political and commercial gain. Our research suggests these trade-offs are rarely stated explicitly and are instead carefully masked and or hidden from public view.
For more than a century now, the scales of justice have allowed corporations and governments to largely sit by passively, while tens of thousands of Australians have died (and continue to die) from exposure to asbestos, without transparent accountability and appropriate repercussions.
It is shocking that many Australians still only find out about the consequences of harmful exposure to asbestos after they have been diagnosed with diseases that are statistically likely to kill them within months. At this point, victims have little hope to cling to because their diseases have been among the most poorly funded of all cancers in Australia. Their peace of mind in the last stages of their lives is made worse, knowing that their disease was entirely preventable. These sufferers might receive some compensation, but many do not, and the pool of uncompensated victims will likely increase overtime as evidence of prior exposure sources becomes more difficult.
Battles regarding the publicly available information on asbestos matters are longstanding and remind us of the biblical story of David and Goliath. The resources, power, and weapons of the industry and other monied interests are immense. In contrast, those who are willing or able to speak out unequivocally (or advocate openly) on behalf of unwitting victims appear to be weak and meagrely funded (at least outwardly so). We seek brave souls willing to help us speak truth to power and shift the focus to actions that serve the public interest. Our ultimate aim is to avoid senseless loss of life to preventable diseases.
The facts, evidence, and science that necessitate urgent public health and policy action to save lives from asbestos-related diseases are to hand, and have been to hand, for many decades. Evidence of deaths from mesothelioma following brief periods and low dosages of exposure were highlighted repeatedly in medical and social science journals in the 1960s. Senior executives at James Hardie and CSR, public health experts, and policy leaders, were made aware, or ought to have been aware, of these developments. Yet in 2021, unequivocal and public acknowledgement of these facts by the industry, the public health sector and policy leaders is still lacking.
It is well beyond time for the industry, policy makers of all persuasions, and the media to be upfront and honest with the community about death counts from asbestos-related diseases, the ongoing threats from in situ asbestos, and the related financial decisions and consequences. Public acknowledgement of asbestos matters is essential to pay proper respect to the tens of thousands of Australians who have died from this man-made disaster and to provide an appropriate baseline from which to consider optimal policy steps to save lives during the 21st century.
The website begins by compiling and referencing content from publicly available sources and the medical, political, historical, and legal literatures. We acknowledge the prior efforts and material of journalists, scholars, lawyers, and others who have spoken out on asbestos-related matters over the last century (especially the work of Jock McCulloch, Geoffrey Tweedale, and Matt Peacock[vi]). Publication of this material required, and still requires, courage, as many sources cite examples of the industry and its supporters providing funding or creating positions in return for silence, or using threats against or disparaging employees, researchers, doctors, lawyers, and plaintiffs.
Our researchers seek to analyse and contribute to the existing mosaics of information to better understand:
We struggled to find sourced information that addresses the following critical questions:
Our research suggests all these topics have been suppressed within public forums and are barely discussed or not debated at all in academic circles. Most of the existing literature is limited to discussion on medical or compensation issues.[vii] Our researchers found no peer-reviewed articles in Australia from any discipline that detail the full history of asbestos in Australia, the long-term human and societal harms resulting from legacy asbestos, the responses by the industry and the federal and state governments to asbestos fatalities and ongoing risks, or the legal or public health settings governing legacy asbestos in homes.
Answers to these questions (or at least acknowledgement of the need to publicly debate these matters) are fundamental to properly comprehend the true scale and burdens of the asbestos crisis and to save lives. Without an understanding of these matters, “the status quo” settings will likely continue and thousands more Australian lives will be lost needlessly from preventable diseases. This belief forms the “fire in the belly” of our researchers, and is the foundation driving the establishment of the company and its website.
Our website content will evolve as information and resources come to hand and the debates deepen. The organisation of the topics and content across webpages is intended to present an interconnected story. Some content is repeated, so that topics can be read on a stand-alone basis.
Notably, some content had to be omitted from this website for legal reasons. While the defamation rules in Australia are intended to protect the reputation of persons, these frameworks can hinder substantive debate and criticism, especially when the topics are commercially and politically sensitive and there are large imbalances in the power and resources of those involved.
Our primary aim is to prevent future occurrences of harmful exposure to asbestos and related deaths. Comprehensive discussion of personal injury compensation matters is purposely left to others, as the payment of compensation to sufferers of asbestos-related diseases (when this occurs) is not equivalent to saving a person’s live and should never be thought of as a satisfactory alternate to preventative measures that seek to prevent lethal exposure from occurring. Given a choice, we doubt that any sufferer would opt for compensation rather than the chance to have more years with their family and loved ones.[viii]
Asbestos Awareness Australia Ltd is a registered not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, is a registered charity, and has endorsement from the Australian Taxation Office as a gift deductible recipient. Asbestos Awareness Australia is run entirely by volunteers, and had received no external funding at the time the website was launched.
The current directors of Asbestos Awareness Australia are:
If you have time to assist us on a voluntary basis, we will welcome your skills, expertise, and companionship. Please tell us in an email how much time you can spare, when, and what tasks might interest you (eg researching, editing, writing, checking references and website links, answering the phone, mystery shopping, website maintenance, organising meetings etc).
Submit a memorial for a loved one and or a personal warning to the community.
There has been minimal truth-telling about the asbestos crisis in Australia and the voices of those most impacted have barely been heard in public forums, including:
We want to hear and promote the voices of people suffering from asbestos-related diseases, those who have died from asbestos-related diseases, and the many others impacted by these diseases. Our aim in doing so is to make a difference for others that may die or suffer in the future because they are unknowingly and innocently exposed to legacy asbestos in Australia.
We will facilitate pages on our website to allow you (or a proxy) to provide individualised warnings to the community, and or a memorial, and or to say something else publicly.
You can write your own warning or memorial in two to three paragraphs, or you can record the warning or memorial and send us the video. Alternatively, you can contact us by phone or email, and we can write or record the warning or memorial on your behalf as you talk to us by phone or via a video format, such as zoom or skype.
We may need to edit your submissions for legal and other reasons, but we will not publish your contribution until you tell us in writing that you are comfortable for us to do so.
Please note that there is a formal process of consent to enable us to publish your messages. We can explain or help you with this.
If you know someone who died from an asbestos-related disease, we encourage you to write a short memorial. You may wish to include something about the person’s exposure, their occupation, their treatment, and their life story.
If you are a sufferer of an asbestos-related disease OR a carer of someone with an asbestos-related disease OR you know someone that is suffering from an asbestos-related disease, we encourage you to do the following:
Write a short warning to the community about the risk and consequences of exposure to asbestos based on your experience (or the experience of a loved one). You may wish to include comments on your exposure history, what you wish you had known, what you believe others need to know, and what you want changed.
The following is an example of one such warning:
‘If I had had any awareness that my life was potentially at risk from doing home renovations, I would have sought professional assistance, or I would not have proceeded. But even though I was well educated, I had no idea about asbestos risks.
I thought I was being prudent by seeking a building report and by doing regular white ant inspections. I was somehow aware of these risks. Yet nobody told me about the greatest risk of all – exposure to deadly asbestos. Given the history of asbestos and the knowledge about asbestos-related diseases by the 1960s, this is shameful.’
Provide details of a person we can contact to seek a warning, such as their name, phone, and email.
If there is something else you wish to say to the community about asbestos matters, feel free to do so either in written or video form.
We want to encourage robust public debate on key asbestos issues. To achieve this, we welcome respectful and constructive feedback from you on anything discussed on our website or other matters that you think should be highlighted.
If your feedback or arguments are helpful in progressing a debate, we may ask your permission to include it on the website.
Donations to Asbestos Awareness Australia are tax deductible (with endorsement from the Australian Taxation Office as a deductible gift recipient). All money received from the public will be spent entirely on specific projects that satisfy our charitable purposes, such as targeted asbestos awareness programs or specific research projects. The administrative costs of the coDonations to Asbestos Awareness Australia are tax deductible (with endorsement from the Australian Taxation Office as a deductible gift recipient). All money received from the public will be spent entirely on specific projects that satisfy our charitable purposes, such as targeted asbestos awareness programs or specific research projects. The administrative costs of the company will be kept low and will be paid from other sources. mpany will be kept low and will be paid from other sources.