'Not A Finished Issue': Almost 700 More People Die From Mesothelioma

Asbestos has been banned in Australia for almost two decades, but its devastating effects are still being felt.

Mesothelioma -- an aggressive form of cancer caused by asbestos -- is claiming the lives of an average of 700 people per year, with experts warning we're in the "third wave" of deaths.

A total of 699 people died in 2018 from the cancer, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) released Wednesday, but that number is expected to rise, as more cases are reported to the Australian Mesothelioma Registry.

Mesothelioma has one of the lowest survival rates of all cancers, with just six percent of people surviving the first year.

West Australia recorded the highest rates of mesothelioma for 2015-2018, with 4.4 cases per 100,000 people, while NSW recorded the highest number of diagnoses overall, with 923 people diagnosed in 2015-2018.


"Despite the use of all forms of asbestos being banned in Australia from 2004, hundreds of Australians are diagnosed with mesothelioma every year," AIHW spokesperson Justin Harvey said.

That's partly because tiny asbestos fibres -- which are 200 times thinner than human hair, and can easily be inhaled into the lung -- can take decades to develop into cancer.

"Mesothelioma occurs in the mesothelium protective lining on the inside of body cavities and the outside of internal organs," Harvey said.

"Due to its aggressive nature, most cases of mesothelioma have a poor prognosis."

The majority of people dying from mesothelioma are men, due to the widespread use of asbestos in the male-dominated mining and construction industries in the 1970s. According to the AIHW, the average person diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2018 was male, 75 years old, and exposed to asbestos in both occupational and non-occupational settings.

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We're currently facing a "third wave" of mesothelioma deaths, says Trevor Torrens at the Asbestos Disease Support Society -- and it has implications for every Australian looking to do a bit of work around the house.

The first wave was people like miners working directly with asbestos, Torrens said. The second was people who came into contact with it through their occupation -- people like brake mechanics, builders, or carpenters.

A technician removes asbestos April 1, 1995 from apartment building in New York City. Photo: Getty.

"The third wave is the renovators," he said.

"Any house built before 1995, there's a pretty strong likelihood it will contain asbestos. They're the ones with the problem."

Earlier this month, Adelaide man Mathew Werfel won a landmark $3 million compensation case against former asbestos manufacturer James Hardie.

Werfel, 42, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2017, after coming into contact while renovating two houses in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"Home renovators beware, because you just don't know where it [the asbestos] is," he told the ABC's 7.30 program.

Torrens told 10 daily it highlighted a real need to educate the community about the ongoing prevalence of asbestos, which a casual home-renovator might not realise makes up part of a property.

Most people diagnosed with mesothelioma die within the first 11 months. Photo: Getty.

"It's not a finished issue, it's an ongoing issue," he said. "We really only stopped manufacturing asbestos in the 1980s, and we completely banned it in 2003, but we're still seeing the legacy."

Werferl's case has ramifications for future mesothelioma patients, his lawyer said, with a South Australian Employment Tribunal ruling that Hardie failed to take reasonable steps to minimise the risk of exposure.

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But for Werfel, a multi-million payout isn't going to guarantee him more time with his wife and three young daughters.

"I know it's a death sentence," he told 7.30.

"I just can't imagine not being around for my family. It makes me feel sick, it makes me feel sick to my stomach that a substance like this was ever created in the first place."

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