Ross Coulthart share’s his views:
There’s an embarrassing confession to be made here. Journalists, sometimes, get weary with an issue. If a story’s not new – it’s not ‘news’. So I for one was initially a bit cautious about the idea of ‘another’ asbestos story.
The problem with generating public interest in such a story is the risk of compassion fatigue … That we all know enough already about the outrageous behaviour of James Hardie and CSR in mining and selling products containing asbestos long after they knew they were dangerous – that these two Australian business icons knew the dust could kill, and how they failed to protect or warn their workers and the tradesmen down the line who worked with it.
And then there’s the hopelessness and sense of despair we all feel for the workers who were exposed to asbestos on the job. We all feel terrible for
the victims, whom we’ve seen on our TV sets, as they gasp for air staggering up the steps of the law courts to prove their claim against the asbestos industry’s continuing outrageous corporate bastardry.
It’s all so confronting and awful that, until the last few weeks, like most Australians, I had compartmentalised ‘that’ asbestos story as someone else’s problem – reassuring myself with the idea that the threat posed by asbestos was and is an historical one and not a current threat for me, my family or my friends.
And then I met Kylie, and her three beautiful children, Brooke, Skye and Mason. Her story completely overturned my preconceptions about the issue.
Kylie is the widow of Troy, who died two years ago of a dreadful incurable asbestos cancer called mesothelioma. Troy worked as a caterer; he was a loving dad, who also volunteered with the WA State Emergency Service – and clearly a top bloke. What shocked me about his death was the horrible mystery surrounding how he got ill in the first place.
For Troy never worked with asbestos. As best as he and his family could tell, he also never worked in any environment where he was exposed to asbestos. This 27-year-old father bravely passed away in June 2007 without ever solving the mystery of how he was exposed to the deadly fibres. It was just a few weeks after he had cut the umbilical cord of his new baby boy Mason.
His widow, Kylie, is an extremely strong and mature young woman. The positive attitude she shows, and the way she is just getting on with life, supporting her children, is inspiring. My crew and I were all gutted when she explained that Troy had passed away without any life insurance; like most men in his twenties he thought he was bullet-proof. And without being able to pinpoint where the asbestos came from that caused Troy’s illness, it is impossible for Kylie to claim compensation from the corporate grubs responsible for selling a product they knew to be dangerous.
Troy was one of the ‘new wave’ of asbestos victims that is the focus of our story this week – people with no idea how they were exposed. The men and women who worked in and around the asbestos mines like Wittenoom, and who contracted asbestos disease, have mostly now passed away. Their children are now getting ill. But more and more of the people walking in the door of the Asbestos Diseases Society in Perth are people who have no idea how they ever inhaled asbestos fibres. Wonderful women like Rose Marie Vojakovic, who runs the ADS with her husband Robert, now have to sit down and help solve that mystery – often by combing through family albums and taking very detailed histories.
And that is why this story should matter to every single Australian. Asbestos is not a historical problem. It’s a new, clear and present danger. There are thousands of products out there in our community made with asbestos; things I had never even thought of such as the black asbestos bonded matting under old carpets, the asbestos bonded glue used to stick down lino and carpets or to secure window glass, the asbestos spack filler used to patch a hole in an otherwise asbestos free wall. Each one of these poses a very real threat to your health if you don’t take the necessary precautions.
As the mother of 24-year-old Adam Sager, Julie, tells us in the story, if you have any suspicions at all that there is asbestos in your home – get it tested. Don’t drill, sand, cut or disturb any product in any way until you know what it is. Because, as our tests showed, even one incidental exposure to fibres from a sander or a saw can expose a home DIY renovator to toxic fibres many times higher than the maximum threshold level.
Across Australia, most homes contain some asbestos. In Victoria it’s estimated that 98% of homes constructed before 1976 contained asbestos products – and 20% of all domestic roofs were asbestos. In NSW, just over half of all houses built up to the mid-fifties were clad with asbestos. It wasn’t until the end of 2003 that asbestos and all products containing asbestos were banned in Australia. But that hasn’t done anything about the mountain of toxic asbestos residue now sitting in most Australian suburbs.
Do yourself a favour and check, before you do any renovation or building work.
It could save your life.
One site that can help you identify where asbestos products may be hidden in your home:www.yourasbestos.com.au