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Asbestos Insulation May Account for Mesothelioma Surge in Australia’s Capital

1918834_AustraliaThe rates of malignant mesothelioma appear to be rising faster in the region around Australia’s capital city than they are in the rest of country and researchers believe that loose-fill asbestos insulation may be to blame.

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) comprises the capital, Canberra, and the surrounding area. The findings on mesothelioma rates in the region are part of a  newly released study conducted by scientists at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Comparing Regional Mesothelioma Rates in Australia

Malignant mesothelioma is a rare but intractable cancer usually caused by exposure to asbestos. Although Australia banned asbestos in the 1980s, the country still has the world’s highest per capita rate of malignant mesothelioma because of its long history of mining, using, and exporting the toxic mineral.  

To compare mesothelioma rates in the ACT with rates in the rest of Australia, researchers used data from the ACT Cancer Registry, the Australian Cancer Database, and the Western Australia Cancer Registry to track mesothelioma diagnoses between 1982 and 2014.

In all, the research team identified 140 mesothelioma patients diagnosed in the ACT during the study period. In keeping with trends in the rest country, most of these mesothelioma patients (81%) were men.

Rates on the Rise in the ACT

With the exception of Western Australia, which was once home to Australia’s largest asbestos mine, the researchers found that the ACT has seen the sharpest increase in mesothelioma rates over time.

“Between 1994 and 2011, age-and sex-adjusted mesothelioma rates in the ACT increased over time, on average by 12 percent per 3-year period,” writes lead study author Rosemary Korda.

By 2009, rates of mesothelioma in the ACT, which had been comparatively lower than the rest of the country, had almost caught up to other regions.

Is it the Asbestos Insulation

Asbestos was never mined in the ACT, but researchers say many houses in the region were built using a fluffy style of asbestos-containing insulation known as loose-fill. They postulate that this loose insulation, which can crumble to a powdery dust over time, may be contributing to the sharp rise in mesothelioma cases in the ACT.

Unfortunately, the ACT is not alone in its use of this potentially-dangerous loose-fill asbestos insulation. This style of vermiculite insulation was once popular around the world, including in the US, where it was marketed as Zonolite and was often contaminated with asbestos.

“More information is needed regarding the health risks associated with living in a house with loose-fill asbestos insulation,” concludes the Australian report, which says that this will be the subject of continued study.

In the meantime, homeowners in older homes with loose-fill insulation should never attempt to remove or disturb it themselves without first have it tested for the presence of asbestos fibers. According to the EPA, there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.


Korda, RJ, et al, “Mesothelioma trends in the ACT and comparisons with the rest of Australia”, September 2016, Public Health Research & Practice

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