The Threat of Asbestos Exposure After a Bushfire
The bushfire emergency that Australia is experiencing has caused untold destruction and devastation to families, businesses and communities across the country. Thousands of homes and buildings destroyed, an estimated one billion animals dead, and at the time of publishing, 28 confirmed lost lives a number that we all hope will not increase. The bravery of the men and women on the frontline fighting these fires is a service that our society will never truly be able to repay to them.
Yet with no end in sight, we have all been told to prepare for this to be “the new norm”. Once the fires have been extinguished, there will be a significant area of our country that will require remediation, as we turn to the next chapter of cleaning up and rebuilding. The fires will be out, but a threat to the safety of those conducting the clean up will still be very real and active. These threats present in a number of ways, from dangerous trees, damaged roads, and exposure to hazardous damaged building materials, with asbestos being one of them.
The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency have estimated that 1 in 3 homes built before 1990 in Australia contain asbestos in some form . Using the current estimate of 3,000 homes destroyed, that means there are likely to be 1000 properties, now in ruins, that will be contaminated by fire damaged asbestos products. This number, however, doesn’t include the estimate of the number of sheds, garages and other buildings on sites that have been destroyed, of which many could have been made from the same materials.
The threat of exposure to people accessing their properties after these fires to salvage personal affects is real. The threat of exposure to people assisting in clean up and recovery efforts is also real. A report commissioned by the Victorian DHS (now the DHHS) in 2006 into the effect of fire on asbestos found that previously non-friable asbestos, when subjected to extreme heat and fire, will cause these materials to become friable. These friable and unstable materials will be disturbed, and likely to generate excessive levels of respirable fibres when subjected to actions such as foot traffic or other processes such as shovelling or moving debris around whilst searching through it .
To understand the gravity of this situation we can look to the affect that toxic dust exposure had on the first responders to the attacks on 9/11 in New York, and the health effects in the aftermath. Thousands of people have died from, or have been diagnosed with, cancers caused by exposure to toxic dusts . The twin towers of the World Trade Centre contained asbestos, amongst many others toxic materials, which would have been present in the dust plume as the buildings fell. The hazards from the collapse of the World Trade Centres and our current bushfires are similar, but also vastly different. The dust and smoke from the WTC were predominantly made up of construction materials whereas the smoke from the bushfires is mostly from burning organic materials. With that said, the warnings surrounding the air quality across the affected states does still clearly shows that there is a threat to health.
Asbestos air testing and analysis (which was conducted in line with the Membrane Filter Method) in the aforementioned study done for the DHS, did not detect elevated asbestos fibre concentrations in the smoke during the fire, a finding that does not overly surprise. For those affected, the threat of elevated fibre generation will not come directly from the bushfire smoke, but from the generation of dust in the clean up of damaged buildings.
With these fires expected to be the “new norm”, it is only realistic to expect that over the coming years that more houses will be lost, more asbestos damaged and more people exposed. New measures, including mandatory awareness training for our workforce must be introduced immediately to prevent exposure. Australians dying from asbestos exposure currently stands at an estimated 4,000 per annum. A shocking statistic, and a number that countless people are working on to ensure the number declines over the coming years.
We cannot let these fires add to these numbers: areas such as fire affected Gippsland have suffered enough from asbestos disease and deaths. When you speak with organisations such as The Asbestos Council of Victoria/Gippsland Asbestos Related Disease Support Inc. (GARDS), it is easy to see the affect this killer material has already caused to the region.
In Australia, there is no requirement under any of our Work Health and Safety or Occupational Health and Safety Legislation requiring mandatory asbestos awareness training to be provided for workers, except for in the ACT. This precedent for training was set by another widespread incident — “Mr. Fluffy”, the loose-fill asbestos insulation, which presented a clear and obvious threat of exposure to worker’s health. There was a known risk of exposure to people accessing these properties to conduct works. We ask that the same consideration should apply now, given the real threat posed by fire damaged asbestos.
Our Governments need to act now, before we end up with what could end up being coined as the “fourth wave” of exposure and disease: “Exposed during bushfire recovery”. This bushfire crisis has offered enough evidence to justify this mandatory training:
• Asbestos is banned in Australia due to its negative health affects
• Australia already has the 2nd highest level of mesothelioma deaths in the world (behind the UK)
• These fires will be “the new norm”
• One in three houses in Australia contain asbestos
• Fire damaged asbestos presents a higher threat to health
While legislative changes never happen overnight in Australia, there is a high probability that people and emergency responders will access building ruins without the knowledge of the threat of exposure, or the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Training provided and protection afforded to our emergency service workers conducting these types of works needs to be acted upon now.
ACA and Riskcom therefore are liaising with different government agencies and local councils to offer assistance where we can. ACA are providing free asbestos awareness training and free asbestos response kits to the affected regions in Victoria. It is our hope, that these information sessions and PPE kits will provide the affected regions with enough knowledge and protection to prevent them from being exposed to asbestos when they return to their homes and communities.