The deadly legacy that keeps on giving

Melita Markey appreciates how fortunate it is her father has not developed an asbestos-related disease as a result of working at WA’s infamous blue asbestos mine at Wittenoom in the 1960s.

“When he got there he found the working conditions appalling - in those days you were bonded until you had paid the cost of getting you there and he was fortunate to have been there a couple of months before he won money at a poker game and bribed the pilot to fly him out of there quick smart,” she said.

Years later, Melita’s father Robert Vojakovic saw a photograph of himself and people he recognised from Wittenoom on TV and his efforts to track it down led to him finding other former workers in Perth and hearing about their subsequent struggles.

Realising the magnitude of the problem and the lack of support for victims at the time, he and wife Rose Marie formed the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) in the 1970s and since then have offered support to and been passionate advocates for victims and their families.

ADSA estimates more than 2000 former Wittenoom workers, their families and many indigenous people not formally recorded, have died as a result of asbestos exposure. It predicts more than 60,000 men, women and children will die in Australia by 2035 from having been at Wittenoom, working in asbestos product manufacture or installation or from passive exposure via home renovations and demolitions.

Asbestos-related diseases include mesothelioma, an extremely aggressive cancer of the lining of the lungs and abdomen for which this is no cure. It can take more than 40 years to develop from initial exposure and causes death within six to 18 months of diagnosis.

Now, in her own role as ADSA’s chief operating officer, Melita sees firsthand the variety of people who have sought seek help with the complex and devastating medical, legal and psychological issues that arise following exposure or suspected exposure to the deadly substance.

“There are air hostesses who flew into Wittenoom, public servants stationed there and their children who developed (an asbestos-related disease) years after being in playgrounds covered in blue asbestos tailings,” she said.

Of course, the legacy of asbestos stretches far beyond Wittenoom where, more than 50 years after the mine’s closure, asbestos fibres remain abundant and are still considered such a threat to human life the WA Government degazetted the town in 2007, removing essential services, effectively wiping it off the map and warning visitors to stay away.

Melita said the illness and death that began with the mining and milling of asbestos was followed by the manufacturing of asbestos products and the installation and trades use of those products.

Indeed, asbestos is the rotten, deadly gift that keeps on giving and to this day the threat remains throughout Australia with the asbestos that lurks in our built environment and the illegal importation of asbestos products.

“There are people now in their 20s exposed to it as toddlers in a playpen while mum and dad renovated the kitchen,” she said.

“There’s the man in his 90s with mesothelioma and helpful wives asked to “hold this” while their husbands sawed into asbestos sheets to fence the garden. Now there are teachers who worked in schools with a lot of asbestos in them that were possibly exposed when handymen went in to drill holes,” Melita said.

The substance was as sinister as it was deadly, an example being that the so-called “fibro” roofs and walls in older homes was merely a euphemism for asbestos, Melita said. Meanwhile vinyl flooring, tile and carpet backing plus insulation in pipes, ceilings and walls were all places one might find asbestos,she said, and it posed an even bigger threat when drilled into or broken up with a sledgehammer, releasing dust and fibres.

As the weather warmed up, DIYers were often motivated to renovate or catch up on odd jobs they had been putting off, but Melita urged them not to take chances when it came to exposing themselves and their families to deadly asbestos fibres.

“If a home is built before the 1990s there is a fair chance it may contain some asbestos products. Asbestos is an indestructible fibre and there is no safe level of exposure. It’s important to look for these asbestos products and take precautions by having them checked by an expert before you do any work. If you can’t have it professionally removed, have it painted and sealed – keep the fibres locked in,” she said.

Melita also urged anyone concerned about their exposure to asbestos through their work or DIY renovations to contact ADSA.

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