Geelong: Asbestos is still killing

Issue 

Australia has one of the highest rates of asbestos-related disease in the world. Asbestos kills and goes on killing for generations. The Australian Council of Trade Unions estimates that by 2020, 30,000 to 40,000 people in Australia will have contracted an asbestos-related cancer.

Bill Hargreaves is a 52-year-old construction worker in Geelong. He was diagnosed with an asbestos-related cancer last November and has just finished his medical treatment. Hargreaves is hoping he has kicked this cancer, like he did bowel cancer 10 years ago, and that he'll be back at work soon.

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Hargreaves worked as a roofing plumber. He laid Super 66 asbestos sheet roofs and sometimes stripped them off later. Hargreaves didn't know he was putting himself at risk, but the manufacturer, James Hardie did. That's what makes Hargreaves so angry.

Hargreaves told Green Left Weekly: "We didn't understand. Even our bosses didn't understand because they worked right beside us." He said that Geelong's working-class suburbs of Corio and Norlane are riddled with asbestos. He believes that most people still don't understand the nature of this deadly dust and expose themselves to it while doing home renovations.

Hargreaves has joined a campaign in Geelong to raise awareness about the diseases and the lack of asbestos control. "We've got to get to the people in charge and the cowboy contractors out there.

"Workers are fearful of getting the sack if they speak up and the little people don't want to be sacked to be safe."

Geelong Trades Hall Council (GTHC) is running a campaign to clean up bad practices in asbestos removal. It centres around the illegal dumping of about 200 tonnes of building asbestos on private land at Moolap, just outside Geelong.

GTHC secretary Tim Gooden said the asbestos in question was removed from sites by a trading front called Geelong Demolition. The outfit did not have a union agreement and was undercutting established demolition companies to get the removal jobs, then not taking the asbestos to the designated storage areas. GTHC has evidence that some of the asbestos was being crushed and mixed in with concrete to be re-sold.

The campaign for an asbestos-free Geelong includes improving the domestic building removal process. Victorian environment protection laws do not apply to a homeowner removing less than 10 square metres of asbestos, and occupational health and safety laws do not apply because a home is not a workplace.

In NSW and South Australia, all houses sold are legally required to be audited for asbestos. However, even if a homeowner is aware of asbestos, they would still need training to be able to safely remove and dispose of it.

To safely dispose of asbestos costs about $200 per tonne, so many people simply hide it in curbside bins or, if they have large amounts, dump it along railway lines or on secluded side-roads. Gooden told GLW: "There is still a lot of asbestos in the community and people are being exposed to it every day. Most people either do not know or take a 'she'll be right mate' approach."

Compounding the problem, Gooden said: "Five different government agencies are responsible for the handling, transport and storage of asbestos and they seem to spend most of their time hand-balling the problem to another department. Nobody is taking responsibility for or control of the situation, so people continue to be unnecessarily exposed to the dust and continue to die.

"If I wandered around the streets spreading anthrax dust or something similar, the police would be on to me in a shot. But drive around with a truck full of asbestos blowing all over the place and no one gives a toss."

Concerns about the illegal asbestos dump at Moolap will come to a head this week when an Environment Protection Agency clean-up order deadline expires on September 30. Geelong Demolitions appears to no longer exist and it is unlikely that anyone who profited from the illegal dumping will attempt to comply with the order.

Plans are underway to set up an asbestos support group in Geelong and GTHC is promoting a musical theatre performance called Dust, which examines the role of James Hardie and the effects of asbestos in society.

Dust, produced by Donna Jackson, starring Mark Seymour and featuring the Geelong Trades Hall choir, will be performed over October 2-3 in Geelong West Town Hall. Tickets are available at Geelong Trades Hall or phone (02) 5221 1712 for more information.