Herald Sun opinion piece by asbestos lawyer Victoria Keays.
We are rapidly approaching the height of television renovation drama, when the efforts of amateur renovators are finally put to market and Scott Cam stands with a bottle of bubbly at the ready, shouting tools down for the last time.
But behind the real estate fanfare, bespoke bathrooms and green walls of The Block, lies a serious truth.
As these young couples enthusiastically hammer away at existing wall tiles (and everything that lies beneath), I can’t help but think of some of my clients over the years.
Young people with a real estate dream, starting out, who to save a few bucks, performed demolition work in wet areas such as kitchens and bathrooms. They had no idea that the walls they smashed their hammers into were constructed from asbestos cement sheeting.
In fact, they thought nothing of these works until many years later when, following some mild shortness of breath and a CT scan, their doctor asked the dreaded question “have you been exposed to asbestos?”
This might sound alarmist, but in more than ten years acting for asbestos victims, I have seen people diagnosed with mesothelioma following these types of exposures. Even more tragic are the children exposed as a result of merely being around, or playing while mum and dad make home improvements.
So, before you get swept up in a rush of DIY excitement, I’d urge all Victorians to consider the numbers.
In 2016, the Australian Mesothelioma Registry (AMR) received 700 notifications of people diagnosed with mesothelioma.
The AMR also conducted a survey of 701 people diagnosed with mesothelioma since 2010, and found that about 80 per cent of respondents said they were possibly or probably exposed to asbestos in non-occupational settings.
More than half of respondents reported having done home renovations and 286 reported living in a house while renovations were occurring.
That means the trend now indicates that we are seeing more people develop the disease as a result of what they do at home, as opposed to exposure at work.
These figures expose the real risk that exists for people carrying out their own home renovations.
Worryingly, as illnesses like mesothelioma take 30 to 50 years on average to develop, the full scale of the problem may not yet have revealed itself.
And while asbestos is a real danger, unfortunately it is not the only disease that needs more attention. We are also seeing a worrying new spike in workers being diagnosed with something called silicosis.
This is largely affecting stonemasons, working with reconstituted stone products used for kitchen and bathroom benches. While there is no evidence to date that home renovators are at risk, we are again seeing workers involved in the manufacture of construction products die needlessly. In a time when we should know better.
These products have grown in popularity in recent years, as a more affordable alternative to granite and marble.
The impact of silicosis can be deadly, with limited treatment options, and sufferers are often faced with the traumatic prospect of lung transplantation.
So serious is the issue, the Queensland Government has announced a ban on dry-cutting artificial stone benchtops, because of the very real risk of contracting silicosis – something that the Victorian Government should also seriously consider.
Shows like The Block are packed full of drama and can inspire people to take on the DIY task themselves, but remember the contestants are surrounded by experts and OHS measures.
It is for these extremely serious reasons that home renovators, caught up in the DIY buzz, should think carefully before hitting the tools.
Victoria Keays is an asbestos and silica lawyer with Gordon Legal