House debates

Monday, 2 December 2019

Private Members' Business

National Asbestos Awareness Week

4:45 pm

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) 25 November to 1 December 2019 is National Asbestos Awareness Week;

(b) despite being outlawed in 2003, the impact of asbestos in Australia is ongoing; and

(c) an estimated 4,000 Australians die each year from asbestos-related diseases; and

(2) commends the Asbestos Diseases Society of South Australia and the Asbestos Victims Association South Australia for their tireless and often unrecognised work in raising awareness, training people to safely handle asbestos and supporting victims of asbestos-related diseases.

I rise to speak today about National Asbestos Awareness Week and the fantastic organisations, many voluntary, that not only assist victims of asbestos related disease but also, importantly, attempt to prevent more cases occurring. It's a fact that living in Australia means living with asbestos. Despite its use being banned since 2003, large amounts of asbestos are still present in many, many Australian homes, buildings and workplaces and in the environment. At the height of its use, asbestos was in over 3,000 products. Australia also has one of the highest rates of asbestos related disease in the world, and that means tradespeople and do-it-yourself renovators are among the most at risk for asbestos exposure. What's more concerning is that there is no known safe minimum level of exposure according to the World Health Organization.

Labor's proud of its record of being at the forefront of banning asbestos and tackling the risks and hazards associated with asbestos exposure. Six years ago, Labor set up the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. During this time, the agency has worked with governments and stakeholders to implement the first national plan for asbestos eradication, handling and awareness, something that was not effectively coordinated in Australia prior to this time. Nevertheless, and despite our efforts thus far, asbestos related diseases still kill an estimated 4,000 Australians every year. Furthermore, 700 people were diagnosed with mesothelioma last year alone in Australia. It is clear that much more work needs to be done.

Asbestos Awareness Week was held last week, as it has been held annually for over 30 years, and the stats that I just went through show us why it is so critical to continue. It can be difficult at times to detect what might contain asbestos, as in many cases it's almost impossible to tell the difference between a product that contains asbestos and one that does not. Some companies manufactured identical-looking products after the asbestos ban. That is why it is a concern that research is showing that, while Australians know asbestos is dangerous, this knowledge does not translate into awareness of where asbestos could be, how they could potentially become exposed or how people can stay safe and avoid fibre exposure.

Organisations like the Asbestos Diseases Society of South Australia and the Asbestos Victims Association of South Australia work tirelessly with volunteers, often unrecognised, in raising awareness, training people to safely handle asbestos, supporting victims of asbestos related disease and educating younger people who are going into trades on the likelihood that they may be working with asbestos and on knowing the dangers and the safety precautions to take. I must take my hat off to Peter Photakis, the President of the Asbestos Diseases Society of South Australia, and to his team for all that they do tirelessly every day on a voluntary basis.

I must say as well that Mr Photakis runs this organisation on the fumes of an oily rag, and it was cruel and gobsmacking to see that the state Liberal government discontinued the minimal government revenue that they receive. We're talking about a very small amount of money that was used for education—a tiny amount in the context of government budgets. It is a tiny amount that Premier Marshall and Treasurer Rob Lucas will no longer provide to this organisation, which does such great work educating people about the dangers of asbestos, how to avoid it and the safety precautions that they can take. This funding was used by the Asbestos Diseases Society to go into high schools and TAFEs to talk to apprentices and highlight the dangers of working with asbestos. It was literally a life-saving activity, and that minimal funding has been cut.

I've written to the Liberal state government urging them to restore the funding, saying that by not funding this they're putting people's lives in danger. I know that the work that this organisation does actually saves lives. They go in and let young people know about the dangers—people who perhaps will be working with asbestos but do not know how to avoid it and the precautions they should take. I congratulate all these groups on the great work they do not only in South Australia but in all of Australia.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

4:50 pm

Photo of Celia HammondCelia Hammond (Curtin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion. I thank the member for Adelaide for moving this important motion. I would like to acknowledge Asbestos Awareness Week, which was held between 25 November and 1 December.

Australia's history with asbestos, from mining to manufacturing to its use in building homes and public buildings, has left a deadly legacy which will continue to need coordinated action across all levels of government and non-government organisations for decades to come. It is our history with asbestos and its continued impact on our lives that have led us to being a world leader in asbestos safety and management and to our work as a global leader in advocating for a global asbestos ban.

In 2003 the Howard government banned all products containing asbestos throughout Australia, yet in Australia the incidence of mesothelioma is still one of the highest in the world today, with approximately 4,000 Australians dying each year from asbestos exposure. The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency was established in 2013 to coordinate, monitor and report on the implementation of the National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Awareness and Management. ASEA plays a critical role in driving national action on asbestos management and safety. That is why the government have doubled the funding of the agency. Our strict stance on the ban on the use of asbestos was reinforced when we introduced tougher penalties for illegal importation of asbestos earlier this year. We are one of the only countries in the world with a dedicated asbestos specialist agency.

On that note, and to coincide with National Asbestos Awareness Week, the government tabled a review of the roles and functions of the agency. The review found that ASEA:

… has been successful in providing a strong national and international focus on asbestos issues by bringing together stakeholders, sharing information, encouraging collaboration and building knowledge and capability.

The review recommended that the government continue and broaden ASEA's activities in recognition of this valuable work. The government accepted all recommendations of the review in principle, and the Attorney-General has asked his department to consult with key stakeholders and develop options for their implementation to help ASEA continue its important work.

Dealing with Australia's harmful asbestos legacy requires nationwide action undertaken in a coordinated and systematic way. In this context, I recently represented the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations to officially launch the National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Awareness and Management for 2019 to 2023 at the annual asbestos safety conference, organised by ASEA in Perth. This plan has been developed by the agency and has received support from state and territory governments. The aim of the plan is to prevent exposure to asbestos fibres in order to eliminate asbestos related disease in Australia. Crucial to achieving this aim is cooperation between the various players involved in asbestos management, including there being effective collaboration between government and non-government organisations. This includes local government and non-government organisations like asbestos disease support groups, employer associations, unions and medical research groups. It is essential that we utilise the skills, knowledge and experience of all of these bodies to ensure that the plan is successfully implemented.

Australia's history with asbestos has left a harmful legacy, and we know this all too well in my home state of Western Australia. Many thousands of lives have been lost as a result of the blue asbestos mining at Wittenoom. There are also the ever-present asbestos-containing building materials that were used for housing and fencing across our suburbs over many decades. Given the sheer scale of past asbestos use, not just in WA but across Australia, it is a sad reality that arrangements to safely manage asbestos will be required for decades to come.

4:55 pm

Photo of Justine ElliotJustine Elliot (Richmond, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak in support of the member for Adelaide's motion relating to Asbestos Awareness Week. The motion notes that November is Asbestos Awareness Month and as part of that campaign 25 November to 1 December was National Asbestos Awareness Week. It is so important that we are all critically aware of the devastating impacts asbestos related diseases have on individuals and indeed on the broader community, especially because Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world. As mesothelioma's latency period is between 20 and 50 years, a peak is yet to be reached in relation to this matter.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's analysis found an average period of 11 months between diagnosis and death. Australia has one of the highest rates of asbestos related disease in the world. Tradespeople and renovators are among the most at risk for asbestos exposure. At least one in three homes built between 1940 and 1990 is believed to contain asbestos, and in some parts of Australia this may potentially rise to as many as one in two houses. Asbestos was used in over 3,000 products prior to 1990, and a great many of these were in residential construction and fit-outs. What's more, there is no known safe minimum level of exposure. In fact, houses built or renovated before 1987 are highly likely to contain asbestos in fibre sheeting, cement pipes, roofing shingles, guttering and textured paints and textiles. So many people, especially those in the building related trades and their families, were exposed to asbestos just from earning their living or going about their day-to-day lives.

Thus far, treatment of mesothelioma has been limited to radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. However, immunotherapy is an emerging treatment showing some promising results. In some cases, immunotherapy has provided longer life expectancy for some who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma. Keytruda is an immunotherapy quite different to the traditional treatments of cancers, like radiation and chemotherapy. I understand that Keytruda has been examined in over 600 worldwide cancer trials, with some promising results. Reports indicate that there are also benefits of Keytruda to those with late-stage malignant melanoma, Hodgkin lymphoma and non-small-cell lung cancer.

I was very privileged recently to meet with Peter and Nyrie Tillotson, two local volunteers from the Asbestosis & Mesothelioma Association of Australia, AMAA. It's a non-profit charity that operates in my electorate of Richmond. The AMAA has an outreach centre based on the ground floor at the Tweed Heads Bowls Club and it's run by local volunteers who offer a number of support services, including telephone support, home and hospital visits and monthly support group meetings. The AMAA raise awareness within the community of the dangers posed by asbestos exposure, and they work to minimise the risk of asbestos exposure for future generations.

It's a devastating fact that mesothelioma kills approximately 700 Australians per year, and that number, sadly, is predicted to rise in the coming years. Even though Australia banned the use of asbestos in 2003, asbestos related disease kills an estimated 4,000 Australians every year—this is double our annual road toll—and asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma in Australia.

Over the last four years, the AMAA has been gathering handwritten signatures petitioning for Keytruda to be listed on the PBS. They're doing this because the cost of the medication is thousands of dollars for each treatment, with the number of treatments required unknown at this time. There are now just over 5,000 signatures on their petition. I commend them for working so hard to get all of these signatures. I now seek leave to table that petition with those 5,000 signatures collected by the AMAA.

Leave granted.

I, therefore, present this petition relating to Keytruda and the PBS. I would also like to take this opportunity to commend the Asbestosis & Mesothelioma Association of Australia and all their volunteers for their tireless work in raising awareness, in training people to safely handle asbestos, and for providing important support for the victims of asbestos related diseases. I thank them for getting all those signatures and raising this important issue. The government is well aware of the community support for a PBS subsidised Keytruda treatment for mesothelioma, and I call on the Minister for Health to look favourably upon the petition signed by those 5,000 people. I commend the member for Adelaide for this most important motion and for raising this very vital issue.

5:00 pm

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (Monash, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As Tony Zappia, the member for Makin, knows, it is very difficult for me to speak on this motion at this time. We have had some occasions in the most recent times for this issue to become very, very close to home—too close to home. This disease is a shocker. I've just seen it firsthand. One of my friends, who worked for me for 10 years, is dead and a very close friend is suffering with this. Both were people who would have had no exposure to asbestosis—none that you would think of. Mary would have done some work with her dad when they first immigrated here—pulled down some sheds or built some things, as new Australians did in those days. Ken, a teacher who grew up in a country town, was diagnosed just after the election campaign and died four weeks ago. He had the particular asbestosis that goes rampant once it gets a hold.

Former Senator Singh, from Tasmania, has been for the last 10 years an absolute warrior with regard to asbestos awareness through the Parliamentary Group on Asbestos Related Disease. That role has now been taken over by Lisa Chesters. Standing in for Lisa, because Lisa is on maternity, Libby Croker is in that role. For 10 years I worked with Lisa Singh on this, and we have changed the world over those 10 years. We were a pretty unpopular lot when we started, actually. It wasn't a big issue for parliamentarians. But, with 4,000 people dying a year, it is probably starting to eat into and affect a whole lot of families now.

I would have said to you, 'It's not going to hurt anybody around me,' but the doctors and specialists said, 'Look, Russell, if we open up any of you, we will find asbestos.' I have a holiday house on Phillip Island. Asbestos is still on the ground everywhere. You can't walk anywhere on Phillip Island without seeing a bit of asbestos. That's the stuff that our kids have been playing in for years—the sand that our kids play in. All the old houses built just before the war and after the war were built of asbestos. They cut it, they broke it down, they threw it out and they buried it in their gardens. Everybody was exposed to it.

It's expected that it will affect 120,000 Australians before this is finished. I don't know whether that is a tiny underestimate, from what I have just experienced. But it is something that we can do something about locally and at home. A contractor turned up next door at my sister-in-law's place one day and said, 'This is asbestos; I'm not touching it. I'm not putting in your gas system. I won't touch it.' He may have had a different experience to others. Others do the work, put on their masks, put the covering on and do the work. At the moment we've still got people who say, 'It's not a big issue. Don't worry about it; we'll worry about it.' Breathing in that dust will kill you—and, if doesn't kill you then, it can kill you later on.

So a shout out to former Senator Singh: your work was greatly appreciated by all the organisations. To my group down at Morwell who have been absolute stars with regard to this, Vicki and her team at GARDS: good on you. The Latrobe Valley was particularly affected by this. To everybody who has participated in all the workshops we've done and all the meetings we've had: thank you so much, because you're making a difference. You're actually making a difference to the awareness of how people can be killed by this horrible stuff. It's just awful. So to everybody out there: for heaven's sake, if it comes across as asbestos, get the experts in. You owe it to your children.

5:05 pm

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I begin by thanking the member for Monash, not only for the speech that he gave to the House just now but equally for his co-chairing of the Parliamentary Group on Asbestos Related Disease and for his many years of commitment to doing something about this product. Asbestos, as all speakers have made clear, kills people by the thousands every year, not only here in Australia but across the world.

On Friday morning, I attended the Asbestos Victims Association's annual memorial service at Pitman Park in Salisbury. The service has been going since 2005. Indeed, it was going before there was a memorial established at Pitman Park, dating back to about 2002. In those early days, there would be a handful of little white crosses that were placed in Pitman Park to identify people who had died from asbestos in that local area. At the service on Friday, there were several hundred crosses. That just highlights the magnitude of the destruction and deaths caused by asbestos just in my area in the northern part of Adelaide.

In the last year for which figures are available, 4,235 lives were lost here in Australia. That was in the year 2017. Those figures are projected to continue at about that rate for probably the next 20 years or so. Of those, 700 or thereabouts, each year for the last few years, have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, and the other 3,500 or thereabouts have been diagnosed with other asbestos related diseases that will ultimately take their lives. As others have quite rightly said, Australia has, per capita, one of the highest incidences of asbestos related diseases in the world. Even though we banned asbestos in this country in 2003, there are still inherent risks associated with it.

I put a question on notice to the Minister for Home Affairs asking him whether there have been, in the last five years, asbestos products detected at the border when they come into Australia, and his answer was:

Yes. Products detected at the border containing asbestos have included:

Children's crayons

Automotive parts within used vehicles: clutches, brake pads, gaskets, door sealants and insulation

Automotive spare parts

Cement fibre boards/panelling

Electric bicycles and scooters

Quad bikes

Industrial gaskets

Gas mask filters

Aircraft parts/insulation

Nut plug material (for mining)

That just highlights the extent to which asbestos is still being used within our community here in Australia, and it highlights the risks for those people who use those products. Sadly, those are the products that have been detected. There are probably many more that have never been detected and are not being detected that are also being used. So it's obviously important that we continue with the campaign of education, awareness and vigilance with respect to how and where asbestos ought to be used.

The other concern I have—and this concern was raised at the PGARD meeting that the member for Monash chaired in this place only last Wednesday—is that, whilst Australia is now slowly getting on top of the issue, that's not the case in Asia and in many developing countries, where they are still using asbestos products, mainly in the form of chrysotile. The suppliers of those products have launched an international campaign claiming that they are relatively safe, contrary to what all the medical opinion would say. It's a dishonest campaign being run in order that they can sell those products to developing countries. My concern is that those developing countries, which today don't have a high rate of asbestos related disease within their countries, will have in the years to come.

There are things we can do. Apart from the education and awareness campaign, we can ensure that there is some consistency in the way we monitor and police the use of asbestos, including the removal of asbestos from homes right around Australia that we know have it within them. But we can also put more money into research because, quite frankly, for all of those people who have been diagnosed with asbestosis, and for those who will be diagnosed—because, more often than not, it takes many years before people are actually diagnosed with the illness—their only hope is medical research, which might ultimately be able to find a cure or at least something that will help them live a much longer and better life.

5:10 pm

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise to speak on this very important member's motion on National Asbestos Awareness Week moved by the member for Adelaide. In doing so, can I commend the members for Monash and Bendigo, who, as the co-chairs of Parliamentary Group on Asbestos Related Disease, do an exceptional job in continuing the tradition of raising awareness about the dangers of asbestos exposure. I also want to take this opportunity to associate myself with the comments made by the member for Monash in relation to former senator Lisa Singh, who, alongside the member for Monash, did an incredible amount of work in this place on raising awareness.

This year's theme for National Asbestos Awareness Week is 'Asbestos lurks in more places than you'd think', and is about the dangers that lurk in our homes. The truth is we do love a good do-it-yourself project. It's almost an Aussie way of life. I know, at my home, my husband likes to potter around the backyard and do things that he enjoys doing and that he doesn't necessarily need to engage a tradie to do for us. Home improvements are an important part of the Australian way of life. The possibility of asbestos lurking in every corner of our homes is something that we all need to be very much aware of.

Renovating one's home is also very popular in this country, and it has been for some time. When we renovated our home, the builders checked the house for asbestos and did find some panels in a part of the old shed at the back of our house. I was quite taken aback that I'd been living in a house for 10 years and I wasn't aware that there were asbestos panels in the shed. And of course, you start to worry about it: did we go anywhere near the panels and did we disturb them? But I was very impressed with the professional way in which the builders, adhering to a very strict code, actually moved that asbestos. We need to continue that vigilance and that tradition. According to the Australian government's Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, one in three homes built between 1940 and 1990 is believed to contain asbestos. In some parts of the country, that can equate to one in every two homes, which is a large number of homes. Asbestos is also not just in homes. We're familiar with the fact that schools, universities and workplaces have asbestos.

Fifteen years ago, we banned the use of asbestos in Australia. However, as I said and as all other speakers have said, it's still present in our homes and in our workplaces, and, as the member for Makin referred to, it's still being imported into this country in products. I want to commend ASEA for choosing to focus on the potential for asbestos in residential environments in this year's National Asbestos Awareness Week. Even though the week officially ended yesterday, I think that we need to be dedicated every day of every week of the year to protecting Australians from unsuspecting access and exposure to hidden asbestos. An estimated 4,000 Australians will die annually from asbestos-related diseases. It is very important for us to keep our communities and our constituents as safe as possible from the dangers of asbestos, and this motion seeks to make that point very strongly. We know that asbestos is dangerous. Many colleagues have spoken about people that they know who have suffered and consequently lost their lives as a result of exposure to asbestos. The battle is never won. There will be more cases as we move forward into the future. We therefore need to continue to raise awareness, to talk about asbestos and to make sure that we don't drop the ball, so to speak.

It is important to note that, in someone's home—often our homes are our castles—it can be in unassuming places such as roofs, insulation, downpipes, walls, bathrooms, kitchens and laundries and under the tiles, carpet and lino. There is always a possibility that it is lurking in the pipes, the fuse boxes or the ventilation shafts and even outdoors like in sheds and fences and in small construction sites. There is always the possibility that you may be unwittingly exposed to asbestos. Therefore, I commend this motion to the Chamber. I congratulate the member for Adelaide for bringing it to the attention of the Chamber for discussion, and I thank all members who have spoken on the motion.

5:15 pm

Photo of Libby CokerLibby Coker (Corangamite, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to be able to support this motion. Last week was Asbestos Awareness Week, and I urge all Australians to be aware of the danger lurking in our homes. Around 700 people a year are diagnosed with deadly mesothelioma, which is only caused by asbestos. Over 3,300 'other cancer' deaths a year are attributed to asbestos. The victims are tradies, manufacturing and construction workers, power and utility workers and those from many other occupations, but increasingly the victims are home renovators or kids playing in contaminated yards. Many suburban homes still contain asbestos.

Last week, at our parliamentary friends event, I learnt that asbestos does not discriminate. Sadly, one Liberal MP has recently lost a long-serving staff member to asbestos disease. A Labor staffer has also been diagnosed with meso. I pay tribute to the bipartisan work of the member for Monash, Russell Broadbent, along with the member for Bendigo, Lisa Chesters, as co-chairs of the parliamentary group on asbestos. However, for too long it has been left to unions, victims groups and law firms to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos and to force change.

Raw asbestos was still imported in bulk in the mid-2000s. It was only the action of members of the Maritime Union of Australia, who finally refused to unload any more of this deadly cargo, that brought the trade to a complete halt. Their action was not legal, but it was moral and necessary. Governments had failed workers, and after seeing many of their own members succumb to asbestos related disease, the MUA had had enough. In 2004 and 2005, it was only unions and victims groups which forced James Hardie to leave money in trust in Australia to meet their obligations arising from negligence actions against them. You will recall that they had restructured their business to set up in Europe and to remove all assets from our shores. In my electorate of Corangamite, in one large workplace, now closed, literally dozens have died because of the raw asbestos that was used to channel molten metal as it flowed from furnaces. I note that the youngest recorded victim of mesothelioma was only in his early 20s, despite the very long latency period of this disease. As a three-year-old, he played in the dust as his parents sanded down the asbestos of their home for painting.

Of course, thanks to the Gillard government, we now have the national Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. Last week, the agency released the National strategic plan for asbestos management and awareness. It has four key elements: improve asbestos awareness to influence behavioural change; identification and effective management of asbestos; safe prioritised removal and effective waste management; and international collaboration and leadership. In a bipartisan way, we must give the agency every support we can. They have produced a great householder awareness kit, and I urge all members and senators to promote it in their social media.

On the fourth priority, international leadership and collaboration, I want to mention two issues. The first is that, together, we should be working to list chrysotile, or white asbestos, as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention. The listing is being blocked by Russia, a major asbestos exporter. They argue that white asbestos is not dangerous, but we know it has caused meso and cancer here and is recognised as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Russia and Kazakhstan use the fact that white asbestos is not listed under the Rotterdam Convention to argue that it is therefore safe to export to countries. I urge the Morrison government to support the listing. Secondly, Asia is now using huge amounts of asbestos—about the same amount as Australia used at the peak in the early 1980s. Asian countries will face a tsunami of deaths in the coming decades, unless they ban its use and import.

I commend the agency Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA for the leadership they are providing in Asia on this issue. They have had several wins in the last year. The government of Vietnam announced in 2018 that they would ban the use of asbestos in cement sheets in 2023, and the Bandung provincial government in Indonesia have also legislated for bans on asbestos. These countries need enormous support to identify and test for asbestos, to conduct air testing, and to set up registers and a range of other functions that we take for granted. Asbestos is still a killer. Only by working together can we defeat it both here and in our region.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.