At the end of 2003, Australia implemented a national ban on the use of asbestos. The ban encompassed all forms of asbestos, including the commonly used chrysotile. It also made importing, exporting, mining, and industrial use of asbestos illegal.
Unfortunately, Australia has the highest per capita incidence of asbestos-related diseases in the world today, including the highest rates of mesothelioma.
A few factors led to the country’s high mortality rate, including the fact that Australia was once the fourth largest consumer of asbestos in the world (after Great Britain, the United States, and France).
Studies also show that instances of asbestos-related diseases, especially mesothelioma, are highest among those immigrants who moved to Australia from European countries during the years of when asbestos use was at the height of popularity. Immigration at that time - around the 1950s - was also booming.
Shortly after arriving, these immigrants were required to remain in government-approved jobs for two years. This work was typically labor-intensive, like construction, shipping, mining, and manufacturing, and exposure to asbestos was commonplace.
Unsurprisingly, mesothelioma rates among these workers forty to fifty years later are higher than the general nonimmigrant Australian population.
Australia also continues to have the same problems as other nations that have issued asbestos bans. Many commercial and residential buildings still contain asbestos and risks of continued exposure must be managed.
Further, indecision about asbestos in the international community means that Australia risks inadvertent importation of products that contain asbestos. This is sometimes due to inconsistencies in product labeling and different definitions of “asbestos-free” in other countries.
And the ban isn’t fool-proof. For example, just last year an Australian company was investigated for importing construction products from China which illegally contained asbestos.
Another contractor unknowingly imported materials from China which contained asbestos despite being certified asbestos-free at the time of purchase. It is unclear how much of the product was quarantined and how much of it was used in building structures in Australia before it was discovered.
Many believe these potentially deadly errors occur because China - the second largest producer of asbestos after Russia - doesn’t categorize chrysotile as asbestos and still frequently uses it in construction.
Chrysotile was recently found in the newly built Perth Children’s Hospital.
The Australian Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency said that bans of the product overseas are crucial. Their chief executive Peter Tighe stated, "If we can solve the problem of asbestos production and use in Asia, then we don't have to have the focus so much on border controls.”
Despite all of the setbacks that Australia faces concerning asbestos, there’s a silver lining concerning mesothelioma research which could help victims worldwide. At Flinders University in Adelaide, researchers have discovered more about the way that malignant mesothelioma grows. The tumors are able to transform into blood vessels to promote their own growth.
This knowledge could change the way that the cancer is treated - possibly by starving the tumors of blood supply - to help prolong the lives and quality of life of many mesothelioma victims.
The Australian Mesothelioma Registry (AMR) is another way that the Australian government is taking part in the fight against asbestos-related cancer. This national database keeps track of information about people who were diagnosed with mesothelioma after July 2010.
It records all new cases in order to help the government develop policies on how to deal with asbestos that still remains in the country and reduce mesothelioma going forward.
It is estimated that rates of mesothelioma in Australia have yet to peak.