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Asbestos awareness month: a time for reflection and action

Asbestos awareness month: a time for reflection and action

Victoria Keays, Principal lawyer, Dust Diseases department, Gordon Legal

As I write this article, we are approaching the middle of Asbestos Awareness Month, which occurs in November each year.

For me, as a lawyer who has acted for people suffering from asbestos-related diseases for almost 14 years, this is always a reflective time. It’s the time that I reflect on the clients I have acted for over the past year, many of them now having passed on as a result of their asbestos-related disease.

I have acted for tradesmen who used asbestos products in their work, who worked seven days a week to build their business, doing well enough to feel able to retire – only to be struck down with a diagnosis of lung cancer weeks later.

I have acted for women who excitedly assisted in building projects, adding extra rooms as their families grew, only to suffer complete shock when they were told they had mesothelioma. They had never worked with asbestos, so how could this be? Then they remembered that renovation in the 1970s and their stomach sank. They were never warned. How could they have known?

‘There is a misconception that asbestos is yesterday’s problem. It’s not.’

Of course, the manufacturers of asbestos products well and truly knew by this point. And yet, asbestos cement building products were manufactured and sold well into the 1980s. And the continued production of these products has caused devastation and misery for so many Australian families.

Australia, shamefully, has one of the highest incidences of asbestos-related disease in the world (of countries that measure mesothelioma diagnoses). A report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on 11 November 2021 measured the incidence of mesothelioma diagnoses reported in Australia in 2020. As at May 2021, 642 cases in 2020 were reported.[1] The actual number is likely to grow, as mesothelioma cases are often reported in the year after diagnosis.

This report deals only with mesothelioma. The diagnoses of other asbestos-related diseases, such as lung cancer, asbestosis and asbestos-related pleural disease are not recorded, and are thought to be much higher than the numbers of mesothelioma.

Nurses step up

Asbestos Awareness Month is also a time for me to reflect on the health community that look after my clients, and the incredible job done by the people who look that asbestos disease sufferers. The role of nurses in this matrix deserves a special mention. The nurses I have met while doing this work have been nothing short of inspirational.

They have a tough job at the best of times, and the last 18 months or so has been the worst of times. As a result of the COVID19 public health orders, particularly in the earlier days of the pandemic, many of my clients had to spend their final days and weeks in hospital without the usual level of family support.

When visitor numbers and the allowed length of visitors’ stays were reduced, it was nurses who were there. I think of one grieving husband who could not be with his wife 24/7 as he wanted. Heartbreaking as this was, he told me how glad he was that his beloved wife had the nursing staff she did. It was of such comfort to him that she was so looked after, and that she wasn’t alone when he was not there. I can only imagine the toll it must have taken on nurses looking after palliative patients during the pandemic. I know my clients and their families would want me to say thank you.

From reflection to action

Whilst reflection is important, it’s of little utility without action. There is a misconception that asbestos is yesterday’s problem. It’s not.

In the last weeks, there have been media reports about asbestos being imported in children’s toys, and proposals for asbestos to be dumped at a tip in Melbourne’s west. Asbestos is an ongoing issue. It has not been fixed, and the consequences may be dire.

The legalities of asbestos removal and disposal are complicated. But in short, we cannot stand for asbestos in our communities. We have to call it out, boycott imported brands where asbestos is still used overseas (because it is legal), report asbestos dumping to authorities and stand up against entities or individuals who would expose our communities to asbestos. Even small exposures to asbestos dust can be fatal in years to come. In today’s day and age, knowing what we know, we just can’t have it. We all have an obligation to do everything in our power to ensure future generations are not afflicted by devastation caused by asbestos.

For me, I owe it to my courageous clients who have suffered and lost their battle to asbestos-related disease in the last year, and in the many years before.

[1] Australian Government, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Mesothelioma in Australia 2020, published November 2021