Despite the fact asbestos has not been used in Australian building materials for more than 30 years, new cases of asbestos-related diseases are steadily rising across the country.
Western Australia remains Australia’s asbestos-related disease hotspot, according to an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report released this week.
It said WA has around five cases of mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused by asbestos exposure, per 100,000 people.
As well as new cases and the ongoing impact on people already living with asbestos-related diseases, devastating bushfires in the state’s south west have highlighted another issue.
What happens to residents of an aging regional town in a bushfire-prone area, littered with old buildings and hidden asbestos?
A devastating aftermath
Almost three years ago, a huge bushfire levelled the Western Australian town of Yarloop after a lightning strike triggered a blaze that took 17 days to extinguish.
It tore through almost 70,000 hectares of land, 181 homes and buildings, and two lives were lost.
The event was complicated further by the discovery of asbestos when the recovery process began.
“In our case with Yarloop it caused a lot of angst in the community about the length of time and the methods used in recovery, to give people confidence that there wasn’t a risk there in the future,” Harvey Shire President, Tania Jackson, said.
“It was very trying on everybody.”
Ms Jackson was shire president at the time of the fire and said because the region had not given much thought to the risk of asbestos exposure in the wake of a natural disaster, the recovery process was significantly delayed.
Ticking time bombs
Robert Vojakovic, President of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia said regional towns like Yarloop were ticking time bombs because of a combination of old, undisturbed buildings and their location in some of the country’s most bushfire-prone areas.
He said there was a misconception that once a fire tore through a region, it also destroyed the dangerous building material.
“That’s nonsense. Asbestos will be with us forever. You can’t get rid of it,” he said.
“Once sheeting explodes from the fires, the [asbestos] fibres are so small, they spread wider, they don’t miraculously disappear, you can’t burn asbestos.”
Ms Jackson said she saw that confusion firsthand in January 2016.
“Unfortunately, there was a level of disbelief in the community,” she said.
“After we did initial air monitoring, there wasn’t any airborne risk, but of course as soon as you lifted something or moved some debris that changed the case, and it was very hard to make people understand that.”
Rick Curtis, Assistant Commissioner of Resilience and Recovery within WA’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services, said authorities learnt a lot in the wake of the Yarloop fire.
It prompted a scathing review of emergency response, as well as a national discussion about collaboration in the recovery process.
“The way that the state and local governments deal with waste management in an emergency context was something that we needed to develop,” he said.
The WA Local Government Association has since worked together with the State Government to produce a database of expert contractors capable and ready to clean up hazardous materials.
“One of the challenges that we had with Yarloop was identifying those contactors because we didn’t have them on a panel of contractors back then,” Mr Curtis said.
While policies have since changed, Mr Curtis admitted more work needed to be done.
“Recovery is about people and it begins in prevention and preparedness,” he said.
“While we fix roads and bridges, the psycho-social impacts of major disasters on a community or individuals is not something that we can underestimate, and we really need to put more time and effort into that.”
Ms Jackson agreed local governments needed to do more to prepare for unexpected complexities in the aftermath of natural disasters rather than reacting to them.
“I don’t think we consider enough the enormity of an event like this and what the ongoing impacts are,” she said.
“We have a product that once disturbed is dangerous and I think people aren’t as aware of that as they should be.
“There’s a lot of education that has to be shared across our communities around bushfire and disaster management.”