The government of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in a firm commitment to eradicate the deadly, toxic fibre asbestos from houses and all government and commercial buildings around the country by 2030, is set to establish a national asbestos agency where the beneficiaries of its first clean-up drive are schools.
The federal government will initially set up a new office of asbestos safety which will later on establish the national anti-asbestos agency with a main objective to remove the banned cancer-causing material from all types of buildings.
The federal government made the announcement, through Minister for Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten, at the joint Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU)-Cancer Council Australia summit in Sydney.
"About 600 Australians are dying from asbestos-related diseases each year, including increasing numbers who inadvertently breathed in asbestos fibres during home renovation projects," ACTU Assistant Secretary Michael Borowick said, challenging the new Office for Asbestos Safety to implement a plan quickly to free Australia from asbestos within two decades.
"Although asbestos was banned almost a decade ago, Australians are concerned that it remains a major health hazard in the community, and unions are determined that the removal of asbestos by 2030 remains on the public agenda," Mr Borowick said.
The new agency will prioritise cleaning up schools first.
"Obviously, exposure to children is particularly repugnant, but there is no good exposure for any group," Mr Shorten told reporters at an asbestos summit in Sydney on Tuesday.
"I can see the sense in what was raised by the unions today. I'll also work with the state governments to work out what is the appropriate priorities, but it makes sense."
"Unions called for a new government agency as part of our submission to the response to the recent Asbestos Management Review by Geoff Fary, so we are pleased the review panel supported our recommendation and that the Government has also listened."
In the review, a national agency was urged to be created to execute the plan to aid the removal of asbestos from all government and commercial buildings, including homes, by 2030.
It likewise proposed a labeling system alert on residential homes built prior to 1987 that will advise potential buyers, tenants and renovators to the possible presence of the material.
''If we know Australians will renovate their homes ... and people will be in public buildings which will eventually be upgraded or renovated - then don't we have an obligation to start tackling the cause of the risk,'' Mr Shorten told ABC Radio.
"These are the priority activities which . . . will be essential in reducing further asbestos related disease," Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) national secretary Paul Bastian said in a statement.
The move to create the national anti-asbestos agency came after a study by the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research (WAIMR) revealed that children in Wittenoom, a West Australia mining town, who are exposed to asbestos are developing cancers and dying sooner than the general population.
It found that girls up to 15 years old and who had lived in Wittenoom had higher death rates and were more likely to develop the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma, ovarian and brain cancers. While boys who lived in the town between 1943 to 1966 when the mine was still operational had higher rates of mesothelioma, leukaemia, prostate, brain and colorectal cancer.
A total of 2,460 Wittenoom children had been exposed to the asbestos before the age of 15, with the median age of exposure was three years of age.
The WAIMR study further found that both sexes likewise suffered from circulatory and nervous system diseases and excessive death rates.
Published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, the WAIMR study was the first to look at the long-term health effects of children from the Wittenoom town, which closed after the deadly blue-asbestos mine shut in 1966.
By end of 2007, 228 of them had died from a range of causes. There were 215 cases of cancer in 207 individuals at the end of 2009.
Originally just 1.6km from the mine, the Wittenoom town was moved 12km away in 1947 as the population grew. Most of the children left the town before age of 16, so exposure to asbestos was present only in childhood.
WAIMR Associate Professor Alison Reid said tailings from the mine were used throughout the town in roads, pavements, car parks, the racecourse and school playgrounds.
To contact the editor, e-mail: