Asbestos in Australia (edited by Lenore Layman and Gail Phillips)

‘From Boom to Dust.’

Wittenoom wasn’t the only place in Australia where asbestos was mined, but it is the first place many of us will think of.  The mine has been abandoned.  More than two thousand workers and former residents of Wittenoom have died from asbestos related diseases.  That number will continue to grow: the mine wasn’t abandoned until 1983.

‘Asbestos has featured in the Australian consciousness from the last decade of the 19th century to the present, initially extolled as a ‘magic mineral’ and after 1977 feared as a deadly dust.’

‘Asbestos in Australia’ presents a comprehensive account of asbestos in Australia, with contributions from experts in the fields of medicine and public health, from historians, journalists and lawyers.   It also includes first-hand accounts from those who have worked with asbestos, lived with asbestos, and suffered from asbestos related disease.

‘Asbestos was the 20th century’s modern mineral, rising with the new century and turning into a pariah mineral by its end.’

Asbestos (under a number of different names) was used to build the ‘fibro’ houses, so ubiquitous in some Australian suburbs as the post-war housing boom drove the demand for cheap housing.  Loose fill asbestos was also used as insulation in homes in Canberra and surrounding areas between 1968 and 1978. Known as ‘Mr Fluffy’ houses in Canberra, over one thousand homes were affected.

‘Medical knowledge of asbestos related diseases has been accumulating since the late 19th century.’

The writers also deal with the asbestos legacy: the medical consequences, the cover-ups, the protracted battles for compensation, and the ongoing risk to public health. Some people my age remember playing in (and with) loose asbestos.  In the words of Warren Mundine (quoted at page 207 in the book):

‘It was soft and fluffy and fun and, although we didn’t know it then, it was death’

Asbestos continues to be a public health issue: many of the homes burnt during the ongoing bushfire crisis here in Australia will contain asbestos.  In fact, most homes built between 1921 and 1990 (including mine) will contain asbestos in one form or another.  As will many workplaces and other buildings. Awareness is key: safe removal is possible when renovating or rebuilding.  Expert advice is needed.

If you want to know more about the history of asbestos in Australia, I recommend this book.  I’d also recommend visiting the Australian Asbestos Network site.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith