Asbestos still a killer for home renovators unaware of its deadly risks – The Australian Financial Review

Home renovators unaware of the risks from asbestos are among the 4000 Australians dying each year from fast spreading cancers. Gill North wants to change that.
Gill North’s dying wish is to warn homeowners and renovators about the fatal dangers of asbestos, a silent killer that each year claims more victims in Australia than COVID-19 and road deaths.
North, 61, an adjunct professor of law, has returned to her home in Thirroul, 80 kilometres south of Sydney, to spend her remaining days with family after more than three years of “hellish” treatments failed to stop the spread of asbestos-related mesothelioma, a tumour of the tissue that lines the lungs, stomach, heart and other organs.
“This is much worse than the COVID-19 crises because the numbers that are dying are much higher”: Gill North is dying from asbestos-related mesothelioma. 
“My message is to make people aware of the dangers of asbestos, to warn them that their lives are at risk,” she says. “This is much worse than the COVID-19 crises because the numbers that are dying – and that are likely to die – are much higher.”
Medical and legal experts warn around 4000 people a year are dying from medical conditions related to asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma.
A bitter irony for many victims is the company most closely associated with asbestos, James Hardie – now known as Amaca – is posting bumper profits and record-breaking share price growth because of the nation’s renovation boom. CSR, another former asbestos producer and miner, is also capitalising on a strong property market through its products that include PGH bricks, Monier roofing, Gyprock plasterboard and Bradford insulation. Neither James Hardie and CSR were available for comment.
Thomas John, associate professor at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre’s Department of Medical Oncology, says the nation is now going through its third wave of killer cancers caused by exposure to the mineral that was once considered a “wonder building material” because of its resistance to fire, sound, water and chemicals.
The first victims were miners – and their families – involved in extracting the mineral from mines, typically in Western Australia, from the 1930s through to the mid-1960s.
The second were builders and other tradies using dozens of products that contained the substance, ranging from ceiling tiles through to insulation, pipe lagging, cladding, electrical panels and partitions.
“The third – and current – wave involves home renovators, rather than employees working with asbestos for their job,” says John. “This includes a significant increase in the number of women being exposed.”
North believes she contracted mesothelioma either from DIY renovations of a house in London during the early 1990s, where she was working as a chartered accountant for a Japanese securities house, or during a later house renovation in Australia upon return in 1995.
Gill North, seen here with her husband Martin, believes she was first exposed to asbestos in the early ’90s.  
“I knew absolutely nothing about the danger of asbestos. I took no precautions and did not use professional assistance,” North says. “I am not aware of any possibility where my professional work would have led to mesothelioma,” she says.
In Manly, a harbourside suburb about 17 kilometres north-east of Sydney’s central business district, Mathew Klintfalt, an engineer, lovingly nestles a photograph of his deceased mother, Carol, as he talks about her eight-year battle with mesothelioma, believed to be contracted while doing home renovations.
“She worked in sales, so there was no other way for her to have got the disease other than from the renovations,” Klintfalt says about his mum, who died in September 2006 aged 65. “But we were initially bamboozled about what was causing her sickness before they detected the cancer,” he says. “They thought she would die in six months but she fought on, not knowing whether the next Christmas would be her last.”
Mathew Klintfalt with a portrait of his mother Carol, who died from asbestosis aged 65.  Nick Moir
Sandie Foreman, 62, a make-up artist and grandmother, considers herself lucky that her mesothelioma was identified early and by chance when her doctor noticed a lesion on her left lung in early 2016. Foreman, who worked on many of the major TV shows during the 1980s, contracted the disease when workmen were replacing sound-proofing made out of asbestos in the corridor of a Sydney television studio.
Her gruelling treatment has included removal of a lung and portions of a rib, the lining around her heart, chemotherapy and radiation. “It is not a cure,” she says from her home in Oatlands, in Sydney’s north-west. “I am no longer suffering pain but there is discomfort, stress and anxiety.”
Her experience backs extensive international medical evidence that even fleeting exposure can be lethal. Around one in three Australian houses have asbestos-containing products, according to analysis by the Australian Mesothelioma Registry, which is part of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Sandie Foreman was lucky that her mesothelioma was identified early by chance.  Brook Mitchell
Asbestos was used in the manufacture of more than 3000 building and decorating products and can be found in any home built or renovated prior to 1990 and in any commercial and non-residential property built or refurbished before 2004. Manufacturers such as James Hardie and CSR were partially banned from including asbestos in products in 1987 and fully banned in 2003.
“Despite this, some imported products still contain asbestos which is going into new builds,” North says.
Widespread ignorance about the risks and the nation’s obsession with home renovations are a potentially fatal combination, according to specialists. Analysis by KPMG suggests that exposure to legacy asbestos during home renovations has been the single largest source of mesothelioma claims in Australia in 11 years to the end of 2019.
“The myth is that while asbestos is naturally occurring it is only dangerous when disturbed, such as when wall cladding containing the product is sawn or sanded,” says North. “But in-situ asbestos has a life of perhaps 50 years and much is decaying and releasing fibres. A single limited exposure has the potential to ultimately lead to cancer and death years later,” she says. “While industry is somewhat aware of the risks, most DIY enthusiasts are not.”
Rising property prices, high stamp duty and the cost of moving, which is typically about 10 per cent of the sales price, is encouraging new and existing homeowners to consider a renovation. A record $65 billion is expected to be spent this year by renovators, an increase of about 11 per cent compared to the previous 12 months, according to IBISWorld.
North has spent her last three years investigating many of the “misconceptions and half-truths” surrounding who is vulnerable to asbestos related-diseases. The Deakin University law professor previously worked for multinational corporations and investment banks in the world’s major financial centres, including London and New York. “I want to do anything at all possible to save other people’s lives,” she says. “If my work during the past three years saves one life then that makes it worthwhile.”
Her analysis of more than 40,000 homeowners found that more than two-thirds were not aware that asbestos was dangerous to health. North also believes governments and companies, such as Amaca (James Hardie), have not done enough to publicise the risk of legacy asbestos in home and deaths from exposure to asbestos outside of the workplace.
“Many households believe the dangers of asbestos are limited to a small class of people, such as working-class older men, and risks for the rest of the general population are very low,” she says. “These narrow perceptions are dangerous and are leading to policy and public complacency.”
For example, recommendations made by the 2012 government report on asbestos eradication ranging from awareness to eradication have not been fully acted on, she says. The federal government has established an agency targeting asbestos and its eradication that has a website setting out how to identify asbestos, legal requirements, and how to have it removed safely. Those concerned about possible risks can check ‘asbestosawareness.com.au’ for help.
A South Australian home renovator, Mathew Werfel, recently successfully fought his claim for compensation from James Hardie to the High Court.
Mathew Werfel, pictured with his wife Jen, won a record asbestos payout. ABC News
Werfel, 42, was first exposed to asbestos as a teenager while working as a fencing contractor and subsequently during home renovations, including while sanding and painting asbestos cement sheets of his home in Adelaide’s northern suburbs. His allegation that Amaca (James Hardie) had failed to properly warn the public about ongoing risks posed by its products was fought through a South Australian employment tribunal to the nation’s top court.
“By the time of Mr Werfel’s exposure there can be no doubt that Amaca knew the risks that was posed to renovators,” South Australian Supreme Court Judge Leonie Farrell ruled.
The risk of contracting a dust disease was reasonably forseeable and Amaca breached its duty of care to take reasonable steps that were available to minimise the risk, she ruled. Damages were reduced by about $800,000 to $2.3 million on appeal. Amaca asked the High Court for special leave to appeal and was rejected.
Joanne Wade, head of asbestos litigation for Slater & Gordon, says she has represented victims aged from their 20s to their 90s, including school teachers, priests, police officers, nurses, doctors and housewives involved in occupations ranging from mining and building through to ship builders and office workers.
“It knows no boundaries. It can affect anyone: young or old; men or women; and from any walk of life,” she says, adding that cases from home renovations are “steadily increasing”.
Wade says: “We are seeing more and more people bringing actions who were around or involved in a renovation.”
Specialist law firms have extensive records that can trace the manufacturers of products used in renovations that can be used to trace liability, she adds.
For North, the issue is to identify the threats so they can be correctly managed, which means policy leaders and public health bodies must play a bigger role in warning of the dangers and stopping the import of products containing asbestos.
To help achieve that goal her final work has been to set up a registered charity, Asbestos Awareness Australia, to continue her work understanding the problem and seeking answers.
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