A third wave of asbestos-related cancers is emerging as the rate of malignant mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos during home renovations increases dramatically, according to new research.
Former asbestos manufacturers James Hardie and CSR have been accused of failing to systematically warn people that asbestos products in their homes could have fatal consequences if they were demolished.
Researchers from the University of Western Australia's School of Population Health examined all West Australian malignant mesothelioma (MM) cases between 1960 and 2008. In their findings published in the Medical Journal of Australia, they found the proportion of cases due to home renovations among women increased from about 5 per cent of cases in the 1990s to more than 35 per cent between 2005 and 2008. Among men, the rate went up from about 3 per cent to nearly 8 per cent in the same period. They found of the 1631 people (1408 men and 223 women) diagnosed with MM during the period, the cases of 55 men and 32 women were linked to home renovations. Out of the total group, 1562 died. The main cause of MM in men was exposure to asbestos through their work, including asbestos mining and milling.
Lead researcher Nola Olsen said the number of home renovation cases was likely to continue rising given the amount of older properties still containing asbestos products coupled with the growing popularity of DIY renovations. “Asbestos-containing products such as asbestos cement sheets are still found in many homes, particularly older homes and fences,” she said.
“Our study shows that exposure in the home, at a time when people were less aware of the health issues and these asbestos products were still legally available, have unfortunately had dire consequences for some.” But Ms Olsen noted MM was still uncommon and the risk of developing the disease was relatively low for people exposed to asbestos in the home.
Co-author Peter Franklin said people did not need to be exposed to the asbestos for long. “These people did renovations on their home, either over a weekend or a few weeks,” Dr Franklin said. “Obviously your risk increases the longer you deal with this, but what we're saying here is single events like this have led to these outcomes,” he explained.
The Cancer Council's Occupational Cancer Risk Committee chairman, Terry Slevin, says home renovations have led to a third wave of asbestos-caused disease. He says the first wave of asbestos-related deaths struck miners, then trades people were hit and now there are others at risk.
“This third wave now has the potential to reach far more people, obviously because it's in the home renovation stage, and the prospect is, if we live in properties that were built between 1920 and 1990, there could be asbestos in those properties,” he said.
Mr. Slevin says it is important people are aware of the dangers of renovating older houses. “What we would anticipate is in the next four-year period, home renovations are likely to account for a bigger proportion of those cases and the opportunity is available now for us to try to reduce that by trying to communicate that this is an important potential exposure,” he said. “People die of mesothelioma, it's a very serious disease, but it is preventable.”
Melbourne barrister John Gordon, who prosecutes asbestos diseases cases, said asbestos manufacturers had a legal duty of care to warn homeowners of the risks from asbestos. Mr Gordon called on James Hardie and CSR to conduct mass media campaigns to warn that the danger still exists.
“That's what they should have done years ago and what they should do today,” he said. “As long as it doesn't happen and people misunderstand the risk…then people will continue to be exposed.”
James Hardie said it contributed to an education fund warning people against asbestos in their homes, including a website dedicated to home renovations. CSR said, “Advice relating to the safe removal of asbestos is best given by experts in this field.”
An estimated 18,000 Australians are expected to die from MM by 2020. Asbestos becomes a health hazard when tiny fragments become airborne and are inhaled. The tiny particles can remain airborne for some time before embedding themselves in the lungs.