Australia’s bushfires on top of a drought have been the worst in decades – leading to mesothelioma in Australia being more prevalent than ever. How? In the last few weeks, experts have estimated that the air quality is the worst in the world. To get such a bad rating, it’s the smoke and PM2.5 particles that have the propensity to cause lung disorders, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and even heart disease.
But there’s something worse than just the smoke that could lead to an epidemic of mesothelioma in the next 10-20 years – the asbestos.
The wildlife that remains will be exposed as well. Animals especially koala bears suffer from smoke inhalation as well as burns; when faced with fire, they don’t know to do anything except climb the burning trees. Some of the veterinary hospitals and locations that treated the wildlife also have burned down. Yet these animals – just like humans will also be breathing in the asbestos fibers released into the air.
If residents want to be safe from the risk of mesothelioma in Australia, residents are warned that walking outside is the equivalency of smoking 13 cigarettes, according to news reports. The situation may be somewhat alleviated by rain, but the long-term damage is that asbestos fibers may also be carried via waterways and deposited wherever the water flows, stirred up in rebuilding attempts and breathed in for the next several years.
A Lack of Awareness of Mesothelioma in Australia
Residents are told to wear masks when they go out during this fire season, but only a respirator with a high efficiency particulate air filter will filter out asbestos. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) approve a half-face respirator when dealing with asbestos (N-100 or P-100 respirators , and not many people are wearing these. Instead, they are wearing paper masks that do not filter out the microscopic asbestos fibers.
What’s the biggest cause of mesothelioma in Australia? All it takes for mesothelioma to develop in the lungs is a few of these asbestos fibers. Once breathed in, the body can’t extract the fibers of asbestos out of the tissue.
Yet, most Australian residents, like those in other countries, are not educated about dangers of natural disasters. According to The Mesothelioma Center at asbestos.com (2019), when Americans were surveyed about their understanding of natural disasters and how a disaster can increase the risk of cancer, only 29% of the over 700 people in the study knew there was a connection.
These Australian fires could cause a lot of potential problems amongst residents who are already at high risk for malignant mesothelioma. In a 2017 medical report published in the Medical Journal of Australia, experts at the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth and the University of Western Australia stated that “the incidence of malignant mesothelioma in Australia is among the highest in the world as a result of widespread use of asbestos by industry and in construction throughout the 20th century.” This statement was before the fires started in 2019.
Although experts working on the banning of mesothelioma worldwide believe that any dose of asbestos is potentially harmful, the three doctors writing this report state that the risk of developing mesothelioma is related to its dose. If there’s a low dose, then there’s a very low risk of disease.
Burning Homes Means the Asbestos is Being Released
The problem here now though is that all the asbestos-containing building materials in homes and building structures are burning in the bushfires. Where does the asbestos go? Into the air! Asbestos is part of fire-resistant materials for construction, such as floor tiles, drywall, cement sheets, roof adhesive. You also find it in attic insulation, wiring and wall gaskets.
A list of common household materials containing asbestos can also include:
• pipe lagging • fireplace decorations
• gardening products • heating and cooling systems
• adhesives • roofing felt
• paints • table pads
• taping compounds/plumbing
After the fires, materials must be moved, which scatters more asbestos particles into the air. With damaging winds up to 80 mph right now, the asbestos fibers are literally sprinkled everywhere, a leading cause of mesothelioma in Australia.
Unless the asbestos particles are wetted down first, they will scatter – and when there’s a drought, it’s unlikely that this will happen. Clothes worn during the process must also be disposed of, as washing them will potentially lead to family members being exposed to asbestos from the washer dryer.
So now there isn’t a low dose of asbestos; it’s a high dose.
If the asbestos-containing building products are not disturbed, they are considered somewhat safe and stable. But when these products age or are worn down, then fibers of asbestos will be released into the air. A fire will release these particles in high amounts, and because they are so small, they will not be seen by the naked eye. A speck on a counter could contain over 10,000 fibers of asbestos.
Any homes that were built prior to 1986 are most at risk, so if these homes went up in smoke, then a lot of asbestos fibers have been released into the air, contributing greatly to the next rash of lung diseases and mesothelioma in Australia.
Risk of Asbestos Exposure is High Even During Inspections
After a fire, home inspectors have to test to see if asbestos is present. Then an abatement contractor has to remove the asbestos. That’s a lot of cost, as well.
Drs. Musk, deKlerk and Brims from Australia also report that early advice on medico-legal compensation and a collaborative team approach to managing the disease are both essential. But who takes the blame when there are massive bushfires, literally affecting everyone? “As treatment options for malignant mesothelioma are limited and no cure is available, there is no established role for early detection or screening of the at-risk population. A multi-disciplinary approach is vital,” they state.
Australia’s History of Asbestos Mining
Where is asbestos normally found in the environment in Australia? One location is in a crocidolite mine in Wittenoom that was mined from 1943 to 1966. The blue asbestos deposits were found in a gorge about two miles long.
Near the entrance of Wittenoom township is a state government warning sign that says, “Warning. Asbestos fibers and dust are present and may be airborne in and around Wittenoom. Airborne asbestos fibers and dust are a health hazard and may result in serious illness in the event of inhalation. Asbestos fiber and dust concentrations in the air are increased by vehicular, human, animal, and other movements.”
The townsite only has three residents living there now and after 2007, it was removed from official maps. Interestingly, early historical records of the mine state that the crocidolite was used as a filter in gasmasks, making the asbestos available to be in direct contact with the respiratory system. EPA reports indicated that asbestos fibers were located everywhere- making the area high risk for mesothelioma in this Australian town.
Risk analysis by scientists in 2018 gave figures of a mesothelioma rate of 6% in the workers of the mine, 1.9% of the women, and 1.1% of the children who lived in the area. These numbers were based on low level exposures based on the contemporary mining practices in the Pilbara region.
Japanese researchers reported that the whole, relative risk of neighborhood exposure in crocidolite mines was about 10 times normal while in major asbestos factories it was about 5. But this was calculated at a time that bushfires were not considered. Crocidolite is much less heat-resistant than other forms of asbestos.
The Department of Public Health and Community Medicine in Sydney reported its statistics back in 2003: that there were 7027 cases of mesothelioma from 1945 to 2001, and from January 2002 until June 2003, another 488. In 1999, doctors could expect 53 new cases of mesotheliomas in men and 10 in women per every million residents of Australia. The rates continued to increase and are the highest reported national rates in the world.
The highest rate of mesothelioma in Australia was in Western Australia with 48 cases. Most cases started from New South Wales and Victoria in the eastern states. When the researchers looked at those who didn’t have a history of exposure, the asbestos fiber counts were greater than 200,000 fibers that were longer than 2 microns. This was in dry lung samples of only a gram and told the scientists that there were unrecognized sources of asbestos that were part of the cause of the mesothelioma.
It is thought that the high incidence of mesothelioma in Australia is because of past use of all types of asbestos fibers in a wide variety of settings in the country. By 2020, the number of cases was projected to be 18,000 – and this was a projection from 2003.
And with the bushfire devastations of the land in 2019/2020, the projections by 2030 will no doubt, be astronomical.
Musk, A.B.W., de Klerk, N., and Brims, F.J. Mesothelioma in Australia: a review. Med J Aust 2017 Nov 20;207(10):449-452.
Kumagai, S. and Kurumatani, N. Risk of developing mesothelioma due to neighborhood exposure to asbestos. Sangyo Eiseigaku Zasshi 2007 May;49(3):77-88.
Leigh, J. and Driscoll, T. Malignant mesothelioma in Australia, 1945-2002. Int J Occup Environ Health 2003 Jul-Sep;9(3):206-17.
Rogers, A.J. Exposures estimates of the Wittenoom mining workforce and town residents – Implications associated with risk estimation for persons exposed to asbestiform riebeckite. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol 2018 Dec 15;361:168-170.
Asbestos and Natural Disasters Guide. Accessed online Jan. 26, 2020. https://www.asbestos.com/asbestos/natural-disasters/