Environment Opinion

Sydney asbestos crisis the tip of the iceberg

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Sydney's asbestos nightmare is continuing to grow with the situation likely to worsen (Screenshot via YouTube)

The current asbestos crisis in Sydney is likely to worsen without proper management, writes Mark Allen.

AS BONDED ASBESTOS (and also some friable asbestos) continues to be found in recently mulched areas throughout Sydney, it is important to point out that we are only looking at the tip of the iceberg. In my hometown of Albany in Western Australia for example, broken bonded asbestos is everywhere.

If we were to apply the same standards here as a recently mulched Sydney parkland, it could lead to much of the entire town being cordoned off. This is not to downplay the situation in Sydney but to emphasise that this unfolding crisis should be seen as a wake-up call for what is a nationwide issue.

My own garden, which is close to Albany’s industrial heart, is full of the stuff, something that I discovered when I dug around the house to expose the sub-floor air bricks that had been buried over time. This is why I then proceeded to cover the garden with (hopefully asbestos-free) mulch whilst deciding to allow the agapanthus to continue to do their thing, rather than ripping them out as originally intended.

But every now and then, the bandicoots will dig up a piece of bonded asbestos on their nightly sojourns to remind me of what lies beneath. Many of my neighbours and friends have similar experiences and this is because Australia has a poor history of asbestos management and disposal.

Another significant concern lies in the vast stock of aging and often rundown fibro asbestos housing that is prevalent in Albany and much of Western Australia in particular. Due in large part to the housing crisis, many people are increasingly being forced to rent this kind of housing even though it is of a standard that they would not ordinarily accept.

It is not only dilapidated fibro housing that is an issue. There is asbestos in some form in most housing that was constructed before the 1990s that if not properly managed, can also become an increasing health risk. Unfortunately, asbestos safety assessments are simply not in the handbook for property managers.

When I first moved to Albany, I stayed with a friend who was renting a fibro asbestos house that was badly in need of restumping. As a result, the entire left side of the house was dropping, causing the floors to slope and more worryingly, large cracks to appear and grow in size in the interior walls. The ripped vinyl sheet flooring in the bedroom also raised concerns, especially as a white powdery substance was coming to the surface.

Too few people are aware that, for a period, some vinyl sheet flooring backing contained 80-100 per cent asbestos for cushioning.

When my friend raised these issues with the real estate agent, they showed no interest in conducting a safety assessment. He eventually moved out for safety reasons, but was forced to pay rent for several additional weeks before the lease was terminated a month early. Of course, he refused to do the post-lease clean, so the real estate agent outsourced the job to a cleaner, presumably without informing them of the tenant's safety concerns and reasons for moving out.

This situation reflects a deeper malaise in Australia of the growing inequality between landlords and tenants and the growing consequences of cutting so-called red tape and green tape at the expense of health and environmental sustainability. The bonded asbestos that is being found in Sydney's mulch and the escalating health risk for Australian renters not only underscores the urgency of addressing Australia's extensive asbestos legacy, but also the need for systemic change.

Because this legacy will not go away, it will only age and become more dangerous and the current system is ill-equipped to manage it. And of course, it needs to be more than just management. We need to begin the long slow journey of properly and effectively removing it, starting with the most dangerous friable (or close to being friable) stuff first.

An effective starting point would be to enact legislation that makes it a requirement for real estate agents to, where appropriate, ensure that safety audits are carried out before leasing or selling a property. This would, in turn, encourage homeowners to take greater responsibility, not just for asbestos but also for mould, which is a serious health issue in its own right.

Additionally, we need to subsidise the proper removal and disposal of asbestos as well as provide other incentives such as financial support to those working in the asbestos disposal industry, so that more people can be trained to carry out the work. This will help to ensure that asbestos does not end up in places where it should not, including mulch.

However, achieving this requires a shift in mindset from a society that continues to pursue market deregulation at massive expense to our health, the environment and the public purse to one that appreciates the long-term health and financial benefits that come with adopting a proactive approach to an issue that is not going to go away.

This is something that we must demand, especially in light of the myriad of other environmental health crises that we are facing, including PFAS and microplastics. The crisis in Sydney is therefore the tip of the iceberg for a multitude of reasons, the core of which is a system that is badly in need of reform.

Mark Allen is an environmental campaigner based in Albany WA with a professional background in town planning sustainability and journalism.

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