ASBESTOS AWARENESS AUSTRALIA: INTRODUCTION

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, thought that it is not dangerous to health, or were usure whether it is 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.

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:

Misconceptions

  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 cases 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 the present 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. 

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; but 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 manmade 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.  

 

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:

  • 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. 

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.


[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 this article, “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).