How much exposure to asbestos can be considered safe?

Published 12 Jun 2013

The problem of asbestos exposure in Australia looks likely to be with us for a very long time. Enormous quantities of fibro made up of between 12% and 18% of asbestos are still lining the roofs and eaves of older suburban houses and sheds walls. Such fibro was used extensively to build homes and factories after the Second World War, in particular, because it was cheap and easy to use. Unknown amounts of off-cuts have been dumped, long ago buried, covered over and forgotten.

Just recently we find it was used to line the ducts Telstra built years and years ago and which the NBN is using to run optic fibre cable for the broad band network.

The dangers associated breathing in the dust that arose from cutting, sanding and generally building with that material were never fully explained. That explanation comes 15 to 40 years later when the earlier ingested fibres react and cause fibrosis, lung restrictions or even worse, cancer.

Because asbestos and asbestos fibro was used so extensively in the past, most Sydneysiders have some degree of background exposure but because it is so low the asbestos fibres remain dormant often for an entire lifetime.

So how much exposure to asbestos dust and fibre is safe, and how much do you need to be exposed to before it places your life at risk?

Some physicians, expert in this area, suggest any level of exposure can be critical even though the general rule of thumb is that the exposure needs to be for an extended period for most asbestos related disease as they are quantity based – the more the exposure – the more likelihood of suffering an asbestos related disease and the greater the disability. Even for the worst of them, mesothelioma, the exposure, it is said, needs to be constant for a week or two.

Cases involving those who mined asbestos at places such as Wittenoom, lagged pipes with the material or who worked milling asbestos fibro sheets the extent of exposure has been relatively simple to prove because of the regular exposure each of the victims was subjected to.

There have even been cases where family members of those victims who worked closely and regularly with asbestos have also fallen victim to an asbestos related disease – wives washing work clothes, children hugging fathers as they arrive home from work – such cases have been successful because it was relatively simple to prove a regular exposure level.

Studies around the world, at asbestos cement factories in Casale Monferrato, Italy; Manville, New Jersey, in the United States and Yorkshire in the United Kingdom have all shown that simply by living within one half of a kilometre of an asbestos plant brought with it an increased risk of exposure and greater chance of developing an asbestos related disease.

In Australia, there have been cases, too, where children playing in, or helping to sweep up, piles of asbestos rubbish, as their fathers pulled apart carport rooves made of the material or sanded down asbestos eaves to make them ready for painting, have become victims. In some of these cases, the exposure has been limited to a period of days. Years later, when the latency period has expired – sometimes as long as twenty to thirty years – the victim shows signs of an asbestos related disease but cannot remember when the exposure occurred.

A recent case we were instructed to run involved a gentleman whose only exposure to asbestos involved one day of breaking up some asbestos fibro to throw in a trailer destined for the tip. He had trouble remembering where he was exposed when he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. One law firm had already turned him away. We managed by talking to him, his work mates and family to track down when he was exposed and although he had such a limited exposure, it was not certain that the Dust Diseases Tribunal would find in his favour. We overcame these problems, however, and we achieved a very successful result. Our client was very pleased that his wife and family were left a substantial sum to assist them with the balance of their lives.

Exposure to asbestos parallels tragically with exposure to cigarette smoke. There is just no level that can be considered safe. Should you suffer cancer or an asbestos related disease carefully explore yours or your partner’s backgrounds to determine whether any exposure to dust from asbestos or asbestos fibro has occurred and then see a lawyer specialising in asbestos claims, as we have at the firm, to ascertain who may be held responsible to compensate you. No obligation arises from enquiring and our policy of no win no fee makes such an enquiry very good sense.