Second Reading – ACT Govt Loans Bill
Mr PITT (Hinkler) (17:21): I rise to speak on the ACT Government Loan Bill 2014, clearly a very serious issue—in particular, serious to the people who own these homes in Canberra. I can see by the people that are here in the House, the clerks and the staff how they are definitely affected by what is going on.
Chrysotile is, of course, a naturally occurring mineral substance. There are many, many types of asbestos, but chrysotile is the one that is found most often. It is something that is in our lives and it will be in our lives some time in legacy items and equipment. It is something that is found in fibro sheet, switchboard boxes and doors. It is in an enormous amount of places which have been built over the last 20, 30 or 40 years.
Fortunately, many state governments—and, of course, the federal government—made decisions over recent years to ban asbestos. That only happened within the last 20 years. So we have literally decades worth of buildings they were constructed not only with chrysotile but with asbestos such as amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite fibres. The difference between the two classes is very, very straightforward. Chrysotile is a fibre which can basically be wound. In recent years I attended the Canton Fair in Guangzhou, China, probably the biggest trade fair in the world. You can imagine my surprise to come onto the floor of asbestos products at the Canton fair, including machines demonstrating how they wind chrysotile to produce, in particular, asbestos bags. I rapidly departed from that floor and went somewhere else. However, this is not an option that is available to the people in Canberra who are affected by Mr Fluffy. They are most likely to have amosite, which is the brown asbestos, or chrysotile, which is the blue asbestos. These are the most dangerous and these fibres are less than five micron. They are invisible to the naked eye; you cannot see them. You certainly cannot take action, because you simply do not know that it is there.
Blue asbestos was most commonly used during the forties and fifties. I can tell you that, as someone who has worked in this industry for many years, I am most likely to have been exposed myself. My colleagues were exposed and certainly a number of my workmates have passed away in recent years from mesothelioma. It is involved in heavy industry, in steam pipe lagging in boilers. It is in many, many locations Australia wide. This will be a problem which will go on for many decades.
Unfortunately, the typical problem with mesothelioma is that people who have been exposed to blue asbestos have passed on. Generally, there are not as many of those as there are who are now affected by chrysotile. The numbers have still not reached a peak. We still have an increasing number of people with claims for asbestosis and mesothelioma caused after working in certain workplaces. I guess that will continue until we work our way through the people who have worked with these products in the seventies, eighties and probably even the early nineties.
I have actually seen things like blue asbestos mattresses and pillows, which were advertised during the twenties and thirties where it was typical to go to bed and have a cigarette. So the claim to fame for those was: ‘You will certainly not die from the bed catching on fire, if you happen to fall asleep while smoking your cigarette.’ I have seen all sorts of things involving asbestos. It really was a product that worked very well for what it was used for.
However, it is without doubt, absolutely deadly. The exposure limits for asbestos are typically 0.1 of a fibre per millilitre. That means one sole fibre, under five micron, in 10 millilitres of air. It is a very small exposure limit because these products are incredibly dangerous. If you compare that with areas such as asbestos pulverisers and disintegrators that were used in the asbestos cement industry, they were typically 150 fibres per millilitre or, for the baggers at Wittenoom, a location where most of the asbestos came from, up to 600 fibres per millilitre.
I recall a conversation I had with an occupational physician, a specialist who deals with these types of diseases. In his opinion, everybody will eventually get asbestosis if they live long enough because, quite simply, we have all been exposed. The risk, the likelihood of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis is directly related to the exposure level, the type of asbestos and of course how long that exposure ran for. Imagine people who work in an area with 600 fibres per millilitre; you could literally see that through the air. Of course, I am sure that the people who are unfortunate enough to be in the circumstance with Mr Fluffy asbestos are having great difficulty in dealing with these issues. As someone who has employed occupational hygienists in the past, I can tell you that to get a clearance inspection for an asbestos-related clearance is exceptionally difficult. You need to basically run a wet wipe and have that tested to see whether there are any fibres picked up. The sampling that these people would have gone through is incredibly intrusive, with pumps that would run in their homes for eight to 10 hours. It is a very difficult situation. I really do feel for them.
In terms of the control measures, I believe there is no other way apart from the way the ACT government is moving forward to demolish these homes. To do that safely you will see the large circus tents go up around Canberra. There will be negative air pressure and clearance monitoring. People will work in white suits with breathing apparatus and they will have to go through a number of different areas to be cleaned. And when all that material has gone, they then have to remove 100 mil—that is four inches—of topsoil from those locations and then backfill across the top. It is incredibly difficult. It is long, arduous and hard work. And it is incredibly expensive.
However, I am very pleased that the Commonwealth has been able to come up with an opportunity to provide the money that is needed by the ACT government—a loan of up to $1 billion. Of course, the people who are affected by Mr Fluffy have gone through a very difficult period. I recognise the speakers and what they have said in previous contributions. It is a terrible thing. The latency period for most of these diseases is up to 40 years. That is 40 years that they will have to sit through these things to see what happens. So it is incredibly difficult. But I see this as something similar to a natural disaster. It is a disaster in this region.
I am pleased that the federal government has been able to provide an opportunity for up to $1 billion, to support the ACT government to clean up this mess. Asbestos will be an ongoing problem for many decades and we have lots of legacy items and that is the unfortunate position in which we are in.