Asbestos in NZ; 100 Years of Harm

Exposure to asbestos doesn’t give symptoms immediately. The symptoms of diseases it is linked to like cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung diseases show up nearly decades later.

For twenty years of her career, Judy worked as a chef, and then she worked in a bar for 20 years. Since her career was at relatively low risk of asbestos exposure she was surprised when she was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma later in life.

Going through her memories, she remembered the time in year nine when her school was being remodelled. Construction materials that contained asbestos were not uncommon then, and only plastic sheets were put up to protect students from the worst of the dust and debris.

She also briefly worked at an office and during that stint, their space was going through a renovation. It is likely that the ceiling and floor tiles that were being torn apart contained asbestos as well.

Judy’s father worked in the steel industry and his clothes were often covered in dust. As Judy regularly helped with the laundry, she believes she may have had second-hand exposure to

asbestos. Judy was only able to connect the dots in retrospect, after her diagnosis. Unfortunately, it is because the cause and effect are so far apart that it takes so long to establish a definitive link between asbestos exposure and cancer.

Historical Use of Asbestos

As incredible as it may seem, asbestos was once a widely used material in several parts of the world. It is a naturally occurring material that was valued for its fire-retardant properties. It was also often used to strengthen other materials, especially in construction. Manufacturing substances that contained asbestos was formally banned in NZ in 1987 but some countries continue to operate with only a partial ban in place.

Asbestos use dates back as far as 2400 BC when it was used to make utensils. Researchers also found fibres of asbestos in debris that could be traced all the way back to the stone age. A Roman scholar called ‘Pliny the Younger’ did make the observation about a sickness among workers who mined asbestos. However, it was only about 2000 years later that the modern doctor found that this illness was likely to be some form of lung disease.

Clues to the risks related to asbestos exposure emerged around the 1930s but it continued to be widely used in construction. After all, it was cheap, easily available and effective.

Surveys and Reviews of Asbestos Related Illnesses

In 1968, the Building Workers’ Union in NZ became concerned about the continued use of asbestos in cement products. In the following years, surveys were conducted on the health of workers who had been exposed to asbestos. These extensive surveys included medical tests like chest X-rays and dust counts. Approximately 108 workers were surveyed and at the time, 71 were found to be working in conditions that exceeded the threshold for asbestos. One of the workers was diagnosed with asbestosis and at least seventeen others exhibited changes in the pleural tissue of their chest cavities.

Health and Safety Work Act of 2015 and Subsequent Regulations

Between 1984 and 1990 more reviews were conducted on the health of asbestos-exposed workers. Unions started demanding action and it was found that the health risks of asbestos were being hidden from workers. In one study, the health of 86 union workers was reviewed. It revealed occurrences of asbestosis, pleural tissue changes, mesothelioma, lung cancer and even COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). About 25 workers had already passed away from these diseases. Regulations were developed to control the use of asbestos and how it was used.

In response to the interest shown in these surveys, the Asbestos Register was established in 1992. Currently, there are approximately 20,000 names on the register.

To protect workers in the field, a protocol was established along with safety regulations that workers needed to follow. 2016 saw the establishment of an approved protocol for the Management and Removal of Asbestos in buildings as well.

By the year 2018, it was a requirement that all buildings and rental structures that were constructed pre-2000, needed to be surveyed for asbestos. They were also required to have a management plan for commercial properties.

Where Are We Now?

While importing and use of most asbestos products are banned, asbestos and asbestos-containing materials are present in buildings all over the country. If you’ve noticed the damage in your home’s structure or you’re intending to renovate, it is recommended that you arrange for an asbestos survey. If the inspection reveals asbestos, it’s recommended that a licensed asbestos removal team handles the situation to safeguard the health of all those involved. Asbestos is not to be taken lightly, no level of exposure is safe, and you may not reap the consequences until decades later.

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