American environmental officials charged with protecting the public against mesothelioma could take a lesson from Australia. The country continues to struggle with environmental and public health problems as a result of its long history of asbestos use.
The Courier Mail newspaper’s website says the State Parliament in Queensland is bracing for a rash of mesothelioma cases among people who choose to renovate their own older homes. The new government report warns that any building built before 1990 is likely to contain asbestos, but so far there is no formal procedure for helping homeowners understand and safely address the threat.
According to the report, one homeowner who called her council with concerns about asbestos on a neighbor’s property finally gave up and moved away before receiving any response. In another case, a vacant asbestos-filled home on an unfenced lot was damaged by fire, creating a potential mesothelioma risk for anyone in the vicinity. It took more than a month for just a fence to be erected to protect the neighbors.
Asbestos was heavily used for decades in Australia as an inexpensive, effective insulator and building material before it was publicly linked to mesothelioma. Doctors now know that, once it is inhaled or ingested, asbestos can become permanently embedded in the body, triggering mesothelioma 10 to 40 years later.
That’s what happened to hundreds of people exposed to asbestos in the former mining town of Wittenoom in Western Australia. An industrial disaster on par with Libby, Montana in the U.S., Wittenoom was home to the Australian Blue Asbestos Company until 1966. By 1986, 85 people had died of mesothelioma because of exposure in Wittenoom and air quality tests have shown that the town will never again be habitable. Wittenoom was ‘de-gazetted’ or wiped off the map in 2007.
Now, the government is in the final stages of closing the toxic town permanently. It is estimated that, by 2020, as many as 700 people may have contracted mesothelioma or another asbestos disease because of exposure in Wittenoom.
“Closing Stages for Asbestos Town”, March 8, 2013, Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) News.