This article is based on the third Safe Work Australia report on Asbestos-related Disease Indicators. The report focuses on mesothelioma and asbestosis, two asbestos-related diseases, to describe the extent of asbestos-related disease in Australia.
According to the latest statistics provided by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, there is a significant increase in the annual number of Mesothelioma-related deaths from 416 in 1997 to 606 in 2011. It reached its peak in 2007 which numbered 674 deaths declined to 667 in 2010. Mesothelioma is a fatal cancer of the mesothelium—the membrane lining that protects vital organs such as the lungs, heart and abdomen.
Based on the 2011 reports, asbestosis was the underlying cause of 125 deaths. Asbestosis-related hospitalisations between 1998–99 and 2009–10 totalled 1394 cases, 97 percent of which were male patients. The National Data Set for Compensation-based Statistics reported 102 accepted asbestosis-related compensation claims in 2011, the lowest number observed since 2002. Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by the inhalation of large numbers of asbestos fibres over an extended period.
Although asbestos is associated with a range of diseases such as lung cancer, it is impossible to pinpoint asbestos exposure as the sole cause of the disease and therefore estimate the contribution of asbestos to the prevalence of these diseases. Whereas, asbestosis is caused exclusively by asbestos and asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Currently, the main source of exposure to asbestos fibres is old buildings undergoing renovation or demolition wherein building maintenance and demolition workers are employed.
As part of its prevention policy, last December 2011, Safe Work Australia Members and the Ministerial Council approved two Codes of Practice relating to asbestos: How to Safely Remove Asbestos (Safe Work Australia 2011a) and How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace (Safe Work Australia 2011b).
“Although the ultimate goal of this prohibition is for all workplaces to be free of asbestos, it is only when these materials are being replaced or where they present a health risk that non-asbestos alternatives must be used,” states the Code How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace (Safe Work Australia 2011b). Therefore, asbestos products that were in situ on 31 December 2003 may only be replaced by products that do not contain asbestos.