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Asbestos City

Written By: - Date published: 7:40 am, September 26th, 2010 - 20 comments
Categories: accountability, Environment, health, Parliament - Tags: , , , ,

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.

20 comments on “Asbestos City ”

  1. Swampy 1

    Yes, it is very unfortunate that asbestos is not required to be removed unless there is a building upgrade or repairs. There is probably heaps of the stuff blowing around in the wind at any one time off older buildings especially rooves that are overdue for replacement, when a property is demolished there is the risk of release, successive governments have their heads in the sand (just like they give decades for earthquake strengthening, they allow the stuff to be left in buildings forever) & it should be put on a definite timeframe for all the stuff to be removed and disposed of from every house and building in the country.

  2. just saying 2

    Excellent work Bill.

    It would be great if this post sent a ripple out into the mainstream media.

    As a barest minimum, Christchurch people need to be given the most up-to-date information, to make individual and family decisions about the potential dangers.

    There’s already been one era of criminal negligence regarding asbestos. It was banned years after the dangers were well known. Growing up, I remember my old man, who worked in a science field, regaling anyone who’d listen about keeping the hell away from the stuff, especially those who worked in the trades most affected. I suspect most thought he was a crackpot.

    The cost of that negligence, aided and abetted by commercial interests, was the health and the lives of many, most of them working class men.

    • RedLogix 2.1

      Another classic example of capitalism shielding the wealthy perpetrators of monstrous crimes.

      If from the moment the real dangers of asbestos and tobacco had been known, that the executives and shareholders of those companies profiting from their sale had been personally charged with manslaughter for every excess death their product had caused…then matters would have turned out quite differently.

      • mcflock 2.1.1

        not to mention the car manufacturers who produced unsafe vehicles, importers of unsafe prams, the liquor industry, etc etc.

        The root problem isn’t asbestos or any of the products themselves, it’s the system which provides an incentive to cover up problems and little or no chance of personal repercussions.

  3. Lanthanide 3

    From the wikipedia page on Asbestos http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asbestos:

    “Asbestos exposure becomes a health concern when high concentrations of asbestos fibers are inhaled over a long time period.[24] People who become ill from inhaling asbestos are often those who are exposed on a day-to-day basis in a job where they worked directly with the material. As a person’s exposure to fibers increases, because of being exposed to higher concentrations of fibers and/or by being exposed for a longer time, then that person’s risk of disease also increases. Disease is very unlikely to result from a single, high-level exposure, or from a short period of exposure to lower levels.”

    I think it is better to get this stuff cleaned up and out of peoples homes ASAP, rather than being overly stringent and leaving it sitting around for longer (or, potentially, forgotten about). Of course the people doing the cleanup should probably be following best practice in terms of protecting themselves.

    • Lanthanide 3.1

      Also, from the same page:

      “Asbestos can be found naturally in the air outdoors and in some drinkable water, including water from natural sources.[26] Studies have shown that members of the general (non-occupationally exposed) population have tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of asbestos fibers in each gram of dry lung tissue, which translates into millions of fibers and tens of thousands of asbestos bodies in every person’s lungs.[27]”

      Overall this post appears to be alarmist.

      • Bill 3.1.1

        Asbestosis generally results from long term exposures.

        Long term exposures are not required with regards the cancers though.

        According to the reading I’ve done over the past days (some of the literature is through the links I provided) there is no safe minimum dose for asbestos dust.

        And yes, asbestos is in the environment in it’s natural forms. Which are not as hazardous as some of the processed forms. Or put another way. There is always background radiation, but you wouldn’t walk into a reactor or carry a lump of plutonium around in your pocket, would you?

        As an aside, I’m not too sure about that page you linked to insofar as it claims that asbestos is a disease (it’s not). Actually, it states kind of amusingly that :- “Asbestos is a very deadly deasie, and if not caught early enough, can cause a slow and painfull death.” (emphasis added)

        Meanwhile, I don’t think I have written an alarmist post. As I say, it is possible that there is no appreciable hazard. The point is that it’s really hard to tell when there is no information or organised testing programme around the issue. All we know is that exposure to asbestos dust is very dangerous and as such is usually subject to strict regulations; that asbestos was used in buildings in in such a way that identification is bloody difficult; and that asbestos has become disturbed, broken and as a result, dust has been released into homes, workplaces and the general environment.

        • Lanthanide

          I’m not sure what cancers you are referring to. Are you referring to the cancers suffered by 9/11 first responders? Given that asbestos was one of only many chemicals included in that toxic cloud (how many tons of concrete, computers, general electronics and human remains were pulverized into dust?), I don’t think you can really say that the asbestos in the dust cloud is what caused the cancers in the cleanup crews.

          Wikipedia is able to be edited by anyone, clearly whoever added the line saying “asbestos is a deadly deasie” doesn’t know what they’re talking about. However the sections I quoted above are both referenced, so shouldn’t be lumped in with the other edit on the page.

          • Bill

            I wasn’t referring to 9/11.

            Apart from lung cancer there is mesothelioma, an asbestos related cancer of the membranes that line the chest and abdomen.

            Exposure is suspected of being linked to gastrointestinal and colorectal cancers, and is reckoned to heighten the risk of getting cancer of the throat, kidney, esophagus, and gallbladder.

          • mcflock

            human remains are carcinogenic?

            • Lanthanide

              I didn’t include the human remains bit as an indication of it being carcinogenic, but simply as a reminder of the many and varied things that would have been in that dust cloud that people wouldn’t immediately have thought of.

              Also, if you google around for human manure, you will find some discussions about human waste containing (comparatively) high levels of heavy metals, making it inappropriate for use as a fertilizer without treatment. However there are also lots of stories downplaying this risk, or saying that it can be easily minimized with some cheap and easy methods.

              • mcflock

                True, the cloud was made of various things. But asbestos is pretty bad, as substances go. And it’s contribution to the responder casualty count could probably be estimated by cancer type incidence.

                meh – bit of a digression, anyway.

  4. Wyndham 4

    In the 1940’s, in Riccarton, Fletchers ran a factory which produced asbestos building products. Foremost amongst these was the Durock asbestos cement siding – – – panels that were used in thousands of buildings throughout N.Z. In particular they were widely used in Christchurch where the post-war boom in state housing utilised these panels extensively. The factory continued production until, I think, the 1970’s. They must still be around aplenty and because of the brittleness caused by age will now be an especially hazardous material.

  5. Draco T Bastard 5

    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.

    If there was a precautionary principle being used then those houses would have been mapped and destroyed back in the 1980s.

    • Lanthanide 5.1

      Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater…

      • Draco T Bastard 5.1.1

        Well, I did start off with saying that they should just have been mapped but this would have either removed insurance from them or put it up to such an extent that people wouldn’t insure. Getting loans on them would have been impossible so nobody would buy them until such time as what people were buying was the land with the aim of destroying the houses. I just decided it would have been easier, and probably cheaper, to destroy them out right rather than waiting for natural forces to do it.

        • Lanthanide

          Fair enough.

          But if this were to be a government-run exercise, I think it’d end up cheaper and more productive if all affected houses were comprehensively decontaminated though. Of course that’s just my hunch, as there’s been no cost counting done either way.

      • Puddleglum 5.1.2

        The asbestos industry has known about the dangers of developing lung cancer through exposure to asbestos since the 1930s (Guardian, December 20, 1978).

        My father never worked directly with asbestos. But he did work a Hoffman Press as sole manager of a dry cleanning shop. Every few months he’d been told to replace the asbestos lining which, by then, tended to be burnt to a frazzle and as he brushed it up the burnt dust went everywhere.

        I use to stay with him on my way home from school and sometimes sat in the shop while he did this.

        Nine years ago he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. All of us in the family watched him die a horrible death less than a year later – four days after his 76th birthday and 2 days before my 42nd.

        A few weeks before he died I asked him whether he was angry at his employer. He said ‘no, nobody knew about it then.’ His job was in the 1970s. They knew alright – maybe not his employer but just about everyone else in the industry.

        There’s no baby with this bathwater.

        P.S. Last week I cleared up the debris from my two chimneys that had been damaged in the earthquake. Fortunately, one was built when the house was – early 20th century. The other must have been built in the late 90s for a logburner that got installed. Oh yes, and for the first five years of my life I lived in a ‘pre-fab’ in England. Guess what? Walls of asbestos. My sister remembers running her fingers over it and seeing the dust.

  6. jaymam 6

    Home owners should already know if they have asbestos in their house. If asbestos is stuck to their ceilings then they should have had it removed long ago. Really, they should not have bought the house with textured ceilings or had that applied. They should have asked for advice and been given it. Asbestos cement sheets are not so bad if treated carefully.
    Everybody should have known about the dangers of asbestos from 1960 or maybe long before that.
    Why are people so ready to believe that all the Arctic ice will melt and sea levels will rise metres, while ignoring the KNOWN danger of asbestos, which they should have known about.

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