INTRODUCING ASBESTOS AWARENESS AUSTRALIA

The politicization of science is used by industry to immobilise debate, by excluding the victims and the public from participation in the conflict. That exclusion is a political strategy which is rarely, if ever, justified by the nature of the explanation involved, or by the methodology physicians use in researching diseases and their cause. What needs to be done is to transfer the asbestos controversy into the public arena, so that the issue is no longer seen or defined as a technical problem for experts in the legal, medial, technocratic and bureaucratic spheres to debate unhindered by an informed public.[i]

Introduction

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:

  1. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.
  2. The most harmful effect of asbestos exposure is death.
  3. More than 1,000 Australians die from asbestos-related diseases each year.

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 enhance public awareness and knowledge of the dangers of asbestos threats.
  • To promote measures and policies that prevent or minimise the harms from asbestos-related diseases.

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.

The history of asbestos reveals that many corporations cynically disregarded the health and ultimately the lives of others by making commercial decisions to mine and manufacture asbestos decades after its dangers were publicly recognised.

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.

Misconceptions

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:

  1. The incidences of, and deaths from, asbestos-related diseases are rare.
  2. The numbers of historical deaths from asbestos-related diseases are uncertain.
  3. Asbestos-related diseases require (or usually involve) intense exposure over long periods.
  4. Asbestos-related diseases are solely or primarily caused by occupational exposures.
  5. Cases of asbestos related disease today reflect historical settings that no longer exist.
  6. Legacy asbestos products that are bonded or encased are safe and best left in position.
  7. It is safer to “manage” than to remove in situ asbestos. 
  8. Most exposure of the general Australian population to asbestos (including the incidental exposure levels used in scientific modelling) is caused by naturally occurring asbestos.
  9. Public health messaging on asbestos risks should be disseminated on a limited basis, so as not to scare the community[iv]  

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:

  • Public knowledge and awareness of legacy asbestos risks and impacts is very poor[v]
  • There have been no nationally coordinated mass media public health campaigns or warnings in Australia on asbestos risks.
  • Dissemination of existing public health guidance on asbestos threats is highly restricted. 
  • The public health messaging available within public forums does not properly reflect the science on asbestos, is a long way from best practice from a public health perspective, and is politically and commercially motivated.
  • Open debate by scholars, policy makers and the media on the optimal public health frameworks to save lives from asbestos-related diseases is lacking.
  • Actions by the federal and state governments and local councils to date to minimise deaths from asbestos-related diseases appear minimal given the gravity and magnitude of harm involved.
  • Clear and transparent rationales to explain such inaction are lacking.
  • There are “veils of silence and suppression” in Australia over asbestos management and policy issues. 

  • There are “veils of silence and suppression” in Australia over asbestos management and policy issues.
  • 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:

    • Very poor levels of public awareness of asbestos threats.
    • Inadequate regulation governing the handling and control of asbestos in residential settings. 
    • A lack of systematic identification, risk management and eradication of legacy asbestos across our built environment.

    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.

    Reforms

    The Asbestos Management Review report noted that ‘one of the primary responsibilities of government is to protect its citizens from known and potential hazards; especially when those hazards result from the previous implementation of government programs and policy.’ Despite the strength and candour of this view, Australia still lacks prudent and proportionate public health warnings and policy settings to prevent deadly exposure to asbestos.    

    • Nationally coordinated public health campaigns that warn about the specific risks and deadliness of exposure to legacy asbestos. 
    • Compulsory residential property asbestos assessments prior to sale, renovation, or lease.
    • Legal requirements for residential property owners to have all asbestos removed by licensed professionals.
    • The introduction of interest free loans (means tested) for residential property owners to support the removal of asbestos by licensed professionals. 
    • Urgent and firm commitments to eradicate asbestos from public, commercial and residential properties across Australia.  

    We consider legal and other mechanisms to prevent or minimise future deaths from asbestos-related deaths. We ultimately call for the following steps and reforms:

    These proposals are not new. The Asbestos Management Review made similar recommendations in 2012. However, none of its key recommendations have been fully adopted beyond the establishment of a federal coordinating body, the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency.

    Our research and experiences suggest opposition to our proposed measures and reforms is largely, if not entirely, centred on financial concerns. Yet, the financial costs to remediate or eradicate legacy asbestos across Australia will be incurred at some point; the only questions are when, by whom, and the extent of suffering and deaths involved in the meantime.        

    The seminal questions now are:

    1. When will the industry, federal and state leaders, the public health sector, lawyers, scholars, and the media finally acknowledge the facts and evidence of the asbestos crisis unequivocally and publicly?
    2. When will the industry, federal and state leaders, and the public health sector take preventative actions that are prudent and proportionate given the scale of lives still at risk?

    The longer these steps take, the greater the accountability of these cohorts for the avoidable lives lost.

    As experienced researchers, we will attempt to ensure ongoing debates that are respectful, well-informed, and transparent. Please notify us of any errors of fact and we will quickly rectify. If you have, or are aware of, additional material that should be referenced, made available, or updated on the website, please let us know. Submitted facts or claims made in material provided should provide verifiable sources, state the assumptions made, and or indicate any conflicts of interest, including past and or present relevant external funding.

    Please note that we strongly refute assertions that asbestos matters can only be discussed by experts nominated by monied and political interests, particularly when these experts are anonymous and cannot be held to account for claims made. We further reject the familiar responses from these interested parties that any evidence or claim made on behalf of asbestos-related sufferers is overly emotional, is exaggerated or imbalanced, and or can be readily dismissed as unscientific. Indeed, we wonder whether it is possible to truly convey or exaggerate the scale of unnecessary loss and suffering created by asbestos-related activities in Australia.

    OUR CONTENT

    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:

    • The nature and scope of the harms caused by asbestos-related diseases in Australia. 
    • The reasons why the public is still so poorly informed about asbestos matters.
    • The medical framework and commercial influences underpinning the present policy and public health settings around asbestos.

    We struggled to find sourced information that addresses the following critical questions:

    Health Outcomes

    • How many deaths have there been in Australia from asbestos-related diseases (past and present)?
    • How does the magnitude of these deaths compare with other public health risks, diseases, and events?
    • What are the comparative survival rates of mesothelioma and lung cancer versus other forms of cancer?

    The Science

    • What are the largely agreed scientific facts on asbestos-related diseases and what are the uncertainties and unknowns?
    • Why is progress on asbestos-related science so apparently slow?

    Public Health & Policy Framework

    • What are the identified risks of asbestos within public, commercial and residential properties in Australia?
    • What are the concrete plans and commitments to manage and or eradicate legacy asbestos across Australia?
    • What are the policies and commitments in place today to prevent ongoing exposure and deaths from asbestos-related diseases?
    • To what extent are public health officials and medical researchers highlighting the dangers and consequences of asbestos threats?
    • What health guidance, warnings and advice around asbestos dangers is publicly available and how effective is this material?
    • Are the public health and safety policies and risk management practices around asbestos prudent and proportionate?
    • Are the paramount concerns of the public health and safety frameworks around asbestos to protect the public and to minimise loss of life?
    • What are the objective levels of awareness and knowledge of asbestos threats and consequences across the Australian community?

    Commercial Interests

    • How much funding has been, and is, provided by federal and state governments and by cancer bodies for research of asbestos-related diseases?
    • What are the ongoing and long-term financial burdens of asbestos-related diseases?
    • To what extent is the current information, guidance, public health and safety policy, and research funding around asbestos still influenced by vested commercial and political interests?

    Truth Telling & Voice of Sufferers

    • Have opportunities for truth telling on asbestos matters occurred in Australia?
    • Have the voices of those who are suffering from asbestos-related diseases, or those who have died from these diseases, been heard on national Australian platforms? 

    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.  

    Website Content

    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]

    Website Content (Still in Progress)

    ABOUT US

    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:

    1. Gillian (Gill) North
    2. Therese Wilson
    3. Martin North

    HOW YOU CAN ASSIST US

    Volunteer your time.

    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:

    • Those who are suffering from an asbestos-related disease and their families, friends and other loved ones.
    • Those who have died from an asbestos-related disease and their families, friends and other loved ones.

    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.

    Memorials

    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.   

    Warning to the Community

    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.

    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.

    Something else

    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.

    Provide feedback

    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 company will be kept low and will be paid from other sources.   

    Donate by paypal CLICK HERE

    To donate to Asbestos Awareness Australia, we have set up a PAYID which allows you to transfer funds from any Australian bank account via internet banking to our email address: AsbestosAwareness@mail.com.

    Payments using PAYID are highly secure, do not incur charges, and immediate confirmation of the destination of the payment is provided. For more information on PAYID, see https://payid.com.au/ 

    Asbestos Awareness Australia Ltd

    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. The company was set up:

    • To enhance public awareness and knowledge of the dangers of asbestos threats.
    • To promote measures and policies that prevent or minimise the harms from asbestos-related diseases.

    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.


    [i] Jock McCulloch, Asbestos: Its Human Cost (1986, St Lucia, Queensland University Press) 258 “Asbestos Cost”. Underlining added by us for emphasis. 

    [ii] The term “harm” is defined broadly in our content to include any adverse financial or non-financial impacts on society resulting from a company’s decisions or conduct. This definition is consistent with corporate sustainability frameworks and is much broader than “damages” that might be compensable under law. James Hardie indicates in its latest annual report that it intends to report in accordance with the GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards. In these standards and in our papers, “impact” is defined broadly to include the effect an organization has on the economy, the environment, and or society, which in turn can indicate its contribution (positive or negative) to sustainable development: GRI, Consolidated Set of GRI Sustainability Reporting Standards 2020 44 “GRI Standards”.   

    [iii] Legacy asbestos is asbestos that remains inbuilt within properties across Australia and is similar to the phrase “in situ asbestos”.

    [iv] See, eg, Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale, Defending the Indefensible: The Global Asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival (2008, Oxford University Press, Oxford) 197 “Defending the Indefensible”; G Markowitz and D Rosner, ‘”Unleashed on an Unsuspecting World”: The Asbestos Information Association and Its Role in Perpetuating a National Epidemic’ (May 2016) 106 Public Health Then and Now 834.

    [v] See Asbestos Awareness Australia Ltd, Community Awareness & Knowledge of Asbestos Threats & Consequences (May 2021).

    [vi] One anonymous reviewer of an article we submitted for publication consideration suggested the books by Matt Peacock and Gideon Haigh are not evidence based. We reject this claim. Both books provide clear sources for the content provided and include interviews with senior executives from the industry. Indeed, many of the sources cited by these authors are the same as those used by scholars. 

    [vii] See, eg, Peta Spender, ‘Blue Asbestos and Golden Eggs: Evaluating Bankruptcy and Class Actions as Just Responses to Mass Tort Liability’ (2003) 25 Sydney Law Review 223; Harold Luntz, ‘A Personal Journey through the Law of Torts’ (2005) 27 Sydney Law Review 393, 409; James McConville, ‘Directors’ Duties to Stakeholders: A Reform Proposal Based on Three False Assumptions’ (2005) 13 Australian Journal of Corporate Law 1. Luntz argues that a systems approach is much more effective in reducing accidents than imposing liability on individuals. A similar argument can be applied to the asbestos crisis. It is much better to ensure systems and policies are in place that prevent harmful exposure to asbestos from occurring than to pay compensation to victims once they have been diagnosed with an asbestos related disease.      

    [viii] See, eg, Turner Freeman Lawyers, ‘Adelaide: Full Court Upholds Precedent-Setting Asbestos Victory; Confirms James Hardie Owed Duty of Care to Warn Home Renovators of Asbestos Risks’ (Media Release, 22 December 2020). This releases cites Werfel. He states that ‘compensation doesn’t make up for the decades of life I have been robbed of by James Hardie’s negligence. I will miss out on so many important milestones that most people take for granted, such as seeing my daughters grow up and have families of their own.’