Wednesday, 9 November 2011
Matters of Public Interest
I rise today to speak on the issue of asbestos and the failure of home renovation TV shows to highlight the dangers of this toxic substance. Australia is a country with one of the highest rates of mesothelioma diagnosis in the world. Asbestos is now banned in Australia and 50 other countries. We know, though, that it is still being mined, exported and used in other countries, and one only had to see the ABC's Foreign Correspondent program last night, where Matt Peacock highlighted the trade of asbestos from Canada to India. Something like 90 per cent of India's asbestos comes from Canada. That is just one example of the ongoing international issues that need attention in relation to the trade, export, use and mining of asbestos.
Australia, of course, has been working very actively with the UN community, including signatories to the Rotterdam Convention, to have strong restrictions placed on the trade of asbestos. We ratified the ILO asbestos convention this year also. I will have more to say on the issue of international efforts and international issues with asbestos in the future, but today I want to focus my attention on asbestos closer to home.
Australians are increasingly turning their hand to DIY home renovations as renovation TV shows such as The Block, The Renovators and Backyard Blitz, just to name a few, appear on our TV screens. The community is inspired by such shows and, come the weekend, people head down to their local hardware store, purchase some tools and equipment and proceed to take a sledgehammer to the walls of their homes. It looks easy enough when the people on these reality TV shows do it, so why not? But my concern is the presence of asbestos and the fact that these DIY home renovators are unknowingly putting themselves at huge risk.
The presence of asbestos in any home built between the 1940s and 1980s is highly likely. When it comes to the dangers associated with asbestos, there is absolutely no doubt regarding its carcinogenic nature. We know that exposure to asbestos results in terminal illness and, ultimately, in death, and we have known this for years. In the year 1982, there were around 160 cases of mesothelioma cancer reported in Australia, and that number had quadrupled to nearly 600 by 2004. The University of Sydney produced a study that estimates that nearly 18,000 mesothelioma cases will be reported by 2020.
Australia has experienced two waves of asbestos related disease. The first is associated with the mining of the substance and the manufacturing of asbestos products. The second wave is from asbestos used in industry—most commonly in the building construction industry. But asbestos related diseases are not limited to the thousands of workers who were exposed before the carcinogenic nature of this substance was fully known. New research released just months ago by the University of Western Australia shows a third wave of asbestos related deaths, and the cause has been named as DIY home renovations.
According to medical experts, it takes between 20 and 40 years for the symptoms of mesothelioma to appear; and, as such, mesothelioma rates will continue to rise from work related exposure. Every year around 700 Australians are diagnosed with mesothelioma, and asbestos related disease rates are expected to continue to rise till around 2020, with an estimation that there will be at least a further 40,000 cases of asbestos related diseases such as asbestosis and lung cancer and 13,000 cases of mesothelioma. One would have hoped that those rates would then begin to decline. Sadly, at this point in time, due to home renovators who are unwittingly exposing themselves, this potentially looks not to be the case.
Asbestos remains a silent killer. An exposure even over a short period of time and at a low level such as during home renovations can result in the diagnosis of mesothelioma. It only takes one fibre to lodge itself and manifest itself to become an asbestos related disease. We saw this in a story recently in the Weekend Australian Magazinewith Carol Klintfalt, who was terminally diagnosed with an asbestos related disease that resulted from home renovations that she undertook in the 1980s. Carol's story told of how she would go and buy the sheets of asbestos from the hardware store. She would sand them back and then sweep up the mess. It was then that she inhaled asbestos dust that has now resulted in her being diagnosed with mesothelioma. Her prognosis in 2006 was six to nine months, but Carol is one of only five per cent who do survive for five years after diagnosis. The average person diagnosed with mesothelioma dies within a year of their diagnosis. Sadly, Carol's story is the same as many others because back then the dangers were not as widely known. Today there is absolutely no excuse.
Therefore, I believe there is an obligation on these DIY TV renovation shows. There is no doubt that, as well as making good TV and seeking high ratings, these shows are aimed at turning Australians into DIY home renovators, which is why big hardware companies are so eager to join forces with them and provide free products in return for prominent branding during the airing of these shows. The spin-offs are many. It certainly makes good business sense, and in that I wish them every success. What is not good business, however, is failing to highlight whether or not asbestos is present in many of these properties featured on these shows and the necessary care that needs to be taken. Asbestos may not always be present in the homes renovated on these shows, but I understand that—for example—one program focused on the renovation of four houses built in the Victorian era; moreover, as I mentioned before, any house built between the 1940s and the 1980s is likely to contain asbestos. Therefore it is grossly irresponsible for these programs to fail to mention asbestos and alert viewers to the fact that contestants need to consider the presence of asbestos when renovating.
I have spoken with many people working in the asbestos related area, and they share my concern. Barry Robson of the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia said he could barely bring himself to watch home renovation TV shows—he simply felt too angry at their lack of social responsibility in failing to highlight asbestos as a very real and very dangerous hazard. Barry joined forces with Mark Lennon from Unions NSW to raise their concerns via the media recently, and Unions NSW has also written to channels 7, 9 and 10, calling on them to include a clear message about the dangers of asbestos encountered during the renovations featured in these TV shows. They received a vague response from Channel 9 and are still waiting on responses from the other channels.
One Australian reality renovation TV contestant recently wrote about his experience on a renovation show on Facebook. He wrote:
As an asthmatic I choose not to broom concrete and asbestos dust into my lungs when I renovate. I use a vacuum. In this environment, there is no control over dust and an expectation that you will work in it and then remove your mask to talk on camera.
This disturbs me. No-one should be exposed to asbestos dust in such circumstances—and certainly not for the sake of TV ratings. This is exactly why rules and regulations exist on the handling, removal and disposal of asbestos. It is why the Gillard Labor government has commissioned an asbestos management review which will look at asbestos management arrangements and how best to minimise the risk of avoidable exposure while also suggesting clear strategies for how best to address the issues relating to awareness, management and removal of asbestos.
In response to the comments made by this contestant, the show's co-executive producer told the Daily Telegraph:
All our houses were professionally assessed, all asbestos was clearly noted and The Renovators had to include licensed asbestos removal in their plans and costs. Our rules state clearly that no contestant is to handle or remove asbestos.
That is all well and good, but are the viewers—the DIY renovators that these shows inspire—aware that this is happening behind the scenes? They absolutely are not. Are budding DIY home renovators shown what asbestos looks like in a bid to help them identify it themselves? They are not. Are DIY home renovators told of the dangers associated with asbestos and the risk to their health? Again they are not. The solution is relatively simple and would cost relatively little money. The issue of asbestos must be highlighted. That is why today I am calling on these TV programs to act. A simple message along the bottom of the screen with a warning and a mention of an asbestos awareness website is perhaps one way to do this. Having the host highlight the dangers associated with asbestos is another important step. Showing contestants finding asbestos and documenting them taking the correct actions is another. Ignoring the presence of asbestos is not an option.
If the TV producers are adhering to the rules and regulations regarding asbestos, as they say they are, and if they are identifying it and having it removed by licensed removalists, then all we want is for this to be included in the program. Show people the real story; do not let these DIY home renovators think renovating is as simple as taking a sledge hammer to a wall. Do not let them assume it is okay to rip down walls without a second thought; tell people that asbestos can be found in fibro sheeting, in water, in drain and flue pipes, in roofing shingles and in guttering.
Until the 1960s, 25 per cent of all new homes were clad in asbestos cement. The use of asbestos was phased out only in the 1980s, and a total ban was introduced only in 2003. This is a very real problem. It is not uncommon for garden sheds or chook sheds to have been built entirely from asbestos sheeting, and few would give a second thought to ripping one of these down one weekend and putting themselves—and, indeed, their family and their neighbours—at huge risk of inhaling this toxic and poisonous substance.
It is up to all of us to educate those who are unaware of the dangers of asbestos, and, if one person is unknowingly putting themselves at risk, then we are not finished with the job. No one wants to see a spike in the diagnoses of asbestos related disease in 20 or so years from now, and no one wants such a spike to be attributed to the craze of these DIY home renovation TV shows when such a simple solution could have made all the difference.
In closing, I repeat my call for these TV programs to take responsibility and provide a clear message during their broadcast about the dangers of asbestos. I shall put this call in writing to these shows today, and I look forward to their action on the matter. As we know, it is not just former workers in construction and cement manufacturing and the like who are at risk, although they are still there and suffering; today, there is a third wave—unwitting home renovators—who will potentially die without a chance of recovery and so add to Australia's high statistics of suffering and death from asbestos related disease We have to turn this around. Those home renovation shows on TV have a captive audience and high ratings; why not be good corporate citizens and do the right thing by those viewers who take the time to watch and learn from the programs? While being entertained they can be educated about how they should go about their home renovations. Why not give them the message they need to avoid future suffering and death so that they do not add to Australian asbestos related death statistics in the future?