Written By: - Date published: 7:40 am, September 26th, 2010 - 19 comments
Categories: accountability, Environment, health, Parliament - Tags: accountability, christchurch earthquake, gerry brownlee, health, health and safety
So there is a high probability that if your house was built in the 50s, 60’s and 70’s it will contain various levels and types of asbestos.
And 15 000 chimneys have fallen over all around Christchurch, or are damaged and being demolished and the debris removed. It’s only reasonable to expect that a fair number of the damaged properties and a corresponding proportion of any rubble is contaminated with the stuff. Seeing as how removal of rubble contaminated with friable asbestos (which can only be determined by laboratory analysis) is restricted work (meaning it can only be done by or under the direct supervision of a suitably certified person), it strikes me as utterly irresponsible that Christchurch City Council environmental compliance team leader Tony Dowson has washed his and the council’s hands of all responsibility by suggesting that “people should get a professional to test suspicious material.” After all, what is generally suspicious about broken roof tiles or some cracked ceiling plaster or broken cement?
According to the Department of Labour/ Occupational Safety and Health Service publication Guidelines for the Management and Removal of Asbestos (which can be downloaded from this page that also contains a number of additional worthwhile links)
There is a long latency period which, in the majority of cases, ranges from fifteen to fifty years between exposure and the development of mesothelioma and lung cancer. There is some suggestion that children exposed to asbestos have a greater susceptibility to disease. Asbestos related disease, therefore, has the potential to continue to occur long after the exposure to asbestos has been controlled.
According to the same document, even in the least dangerous circumstances, ie outdoors with very low dust levels, a respirator (not a mask) should be worn. And skin should be fully covered. And waste should be clearly labelled and sealed in plastic bags of regulation thickness. And the waste should be buried under at least three feet (one metre) of soil. And all equipment used in asbestos removal (tools, overalls, vacuum cleaners, protective sheets) should be treated as waste, bagged and discarded, subject to on-site decontamination or bagged and only ever opened in other contaminated areas.
Which is all pretty full on and surely demanding the exercise of a strictly adhered to precautionary principle. But I have persistent nagging doubts as to whether this is the case when deciding whether a family should re-occupy their home or not, or what if anything they should do with possessions that may be contaminated, or how and who should clear up debris from the general environment.
On the home front, the different forms of asbestos are such that any home from the relevant three decades that has suffered even what might at first seem to be relatively superficial damage such as cracks in or collapse of ‘plasterwork’, could be contaminated.
And then there is continuing loosening or breaking of materials containing asbestos due to aftershocks. And then there is the wind stirring up contaminated debris that is exposed to the elements…
I can’t help but think that if a precautionary principle was being pursued that there would minimally be an information campaign mapping the locations of 1950s, 60’s and 70’s residential developments. And I’d expect the numbers of homeless people in Christchurch would be much higher than at present if precautionary principles were being adhered to, as residents of damaged buildings from the three decades in question had their property’s subjected to rigorous inspection before they were allowed to reoccupy them.
Of course, it is always possible that there is no appreciable hazard and I’m just being a worrywart. Or it could be that there is a hazard and it’s being accompanied by simple incompetence on the part of the relevant authorities.
Or it could be that matters are well in hand.
It could be that in the interests of not adding to general levels of anxiety over the head of a problem that the authorities believe to be beyond their coping capacities, that nothing too much is or will be said unless there is a spike in lung cancers some years from now. And then some mostly forgotten, and what had seemed at the time odd yet innocuous retrospective orders made back on the 30th of March 2012, will be wheeled out to block any legal bringing to account of culpable parties or any attempts to secure compensation.