The hazard of asbestos exposure has been highlighted by the closure of a popular New South Wales tourist spot as agencies work to measure risks and determine appropriate management measures.
Assessors identified the presence of asbestos at the Walka Water Works, most likely associated with the site’s historical use as a power station.
Council had been exploring the opportunities for future use of the site and was undertaking condition assessments as part of this process.
While asbestos has only been identified in some parts of the site, a statement by Mailtland City Council said the health risks of asbestos exposure were well documented, so the entire site was closed to the public until further notice as a precaution.
Walka Water Works is managed by Maitland City Council, which will be working with Crown Lands as the site owners on an asbestos management plan.
Council has notified the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), Crown Lands, and SafeWork NSW and is working with them to quantify risks and determine appropriate management measures.
Precautionary closures and temporary measures are in place on the site including fencing and signage.
If required asbestos will be disposed of in accordance with EPA guidelines.
Risk of asbestos exposure
Anyone working in the construction industry can be exposed to asbestos in a wide range of areas from fences and roofing to ceiling panels and floor coverings.
According to the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, asbestos was used in more than 3,000 common products prior to being phased out by 1990 and banned in 2003. It is still present in millions of homes and public and commercial buildings.
Products containing asbestos are still produced overseas, and despite bans and border controls these products sometimes enter Australia illegally.
Inhaling asbestos fibres is associated with fatal diseases including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. All of these asbestos-related diseases contribute to approximately 4000 deaths in Australia each year.
You don’t need a lot of exposure to asbestos fibres to develop a fatal disease later in life. The people at greatest risk of exposure are those that undertake repairs, maintenance, renovations and other work on older buildings and infrastructure which contain asbestos materials.
Asbestos containing materials that are sealed, undamaged and left undisturbed are unlikely to release asbestos fibres and do not need to be removed. Their condition should be monitored over time.
Asbestos fibres become dangerous when they become airborne and can be breathed in, causing:
- asbestosis (scarring of lung tissue)
- mesothelioma (cancerous tumours that develop around the intestine or lungs)
- pleural plaques (thickening of membranes around the lungs)
- cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary.
Symptoms of asbestos-related diseases include breathing difficulties and scarring of the lung that can be detected by x-ray.
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