Sydney’s Asbestos Crisis: How to protect yourself from hazardous material

February 19, 2024

Octfolio Team

On the 11th February, 2024, the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) confirmed that asbestos was present in mulch on the campus of Liverpool West Public School, leading to the implementation of measures to minimise potential exposure.

Since then, more than twenty exposure sites have been identified as containing asbestos-laden mulch. This has resulted in numerous closures, from schools to a Mardi Gras celebration.

In response, the NSW EPA is conducting its largest investigation yet, with over 130 investigators tracing the contaminated mulch supply chain. Greenlife Resource Recovery, the mulch supplier that has been accused of practices that contributed to this asbestos crisis, denies responsibility and states that their mulch tested asbestos-free. 

Where in NSW have these asbestos exposure sites been located?

The Guardian website provides an interactive map concerning the location of these asbestos exposure sites, as well as a list citing the following locations.

  • Rozelle parklands – 17 locations in and around the park
  • Two sites along the Prospect Highway project between Prospect and Blacktown
  • Electricity substation at Dulwich Hill railway station
  • Electricity substation at Canterbury railway station
  • Electricity substation at Campsie railway station
  • Belmore railway station in a landscaped area near the car park
  • Punchbowl railway station in the railway corridor
  • Nowra Bridge
  • Regatta Park in Emu Plains
  • Liverpool West public school
  • Campbelltown hospital
  • Belmore Park in Haymarket
  • Victoria Park in Camperdown
  • Harmony Park in Surry Hills (friable asbestos)
  • The Parramatta light rail project at Telopea
  • St John of God hospital in North Richmond
  • Woolworths in Kellyville
  • Transport for NSW park in Wiley Park
  • Allambie Heights public school
  • Munn Park, Millers Point
  • Two new residential estates under construction in Sydney’s south-west (not publicly accessible)

How does mulch become contaminated with asbestos? 

Mulch can become contaminated with asbestos through various pathways, typically involving the use of recycled materials or improper disposal practices. Here are some common ways mulch can become contaminated with asbestos:

  • Recycled Materials: Mulch is often produced from recycled materials, including construction and demolition waste. If these materials contain asbestos-containing products, such as insulation or roofing materials, the asbestos fibers can be inadvertently mixed into the mulch during the recycling process.
  • Improper Disposal: Asbestos-containing materials, such as old building materials or asbestos cement products, may be illegally dumped or improperly disposed of in landfills. If these materials are not adequately encapsulated or covered, they can degrade over time, releasing asbestos fibres into the environment, including into mulch piles.
  • Cross-Contamination: Mulch piles located near areas where asbestos-containing materials are being disturbed, such as construction sites or demolition projects, can become contaminated through airborne asbestos fibres settling on the mulch surface.
  • Contaminated Soil: If mulch is produced from soil that has been contaminated with asbestos, either naturally or through previous asbestos-related activities, the mulch itself can become contaminated with asbestos fibres.

How can asbestos fibres be released from mulch? 

Asbestos can be released from mulch through various means, primarily involving disturbance or deterioration of the material. Activities such as raking, digging, or landscaping work can cause asbestos-containing fibres to become airborne, while natural weathering processes and animal activity can also contribute to fibre release. Additionally, as mulch decomposes over time, any asbestos fibres present within the material may become more accessible and released into the air.

How can manufacturers and suppliers prevent future asbestos crises?

Given that the crisis has so far been attributed to a supplier, it’s important to note the measures that suppliers can take to avoid causing a similar situation. Manufacturers and suppliers can take several measures to prevent future asbestos crises:

  • Source Verification: Ensure that raw materials used in manufacturing processes are thoroughly screened for asbestos content before being processed into consumer products, including mulch.
  • Quality Control: Implement stringent quality control measures throughout the production process to prevent accidental contamination with asbestos-containing materials.
  • Material Testing: Regularly test finished products, such as mulch, for asbestos content using accredited laboratories to ensure compliance with safety regulations.
  • Education and Training: Provide comprehensive training to employees regarding the hazards of asbestos and the proper handling procedures for materials that may contain asbestos.
  • Transparent Labelling: Clearly label products containing asbestos or potentially asbestos-containing materials to inform consumers and end-users about potential risks and proper handling procedures.
  • Compliance with Regulations: Stay up-to-date with local and national regulations regarding the use, handling, and disposal of asbestos-containing materials, and ensure compliance with relevant safety standards.
  • Environmental Responsibility: Implement environmentally responsible practices for the disposal and recycling of materials to prevent the spread of asbestos contamination in the environment.

What is asbestos and why is it dangerous?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was commonly used in construction materials due to its strength and heat resistance. However, when disturbed, asbestos fibres can become airborne and, if inhaled, pose serious health risks. Long-term exposure to asbestos fibres can cause diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.

What are the immediate steps to take during an asbestos crisis?

If asbestos contamination is suspected, it's essential to immediately restrict access to the affected area and contact relevant authorities, such as environmental agencies or local health departments. Professionals trained in asbestos management should be consulted to assess the situation and develop a remediation plan.

How can I protect myself and my family during an asbestos crisis?

If you suspect asbestos contamination, avoid disturbing the area and ensure proper ventilation by keeping windows open. Do not attempt to clean up asbestos-containing materials yourself. Follow the advice of authorities and seek medical attention if you experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, or persistent coughing.

What should I do if I suspect my home or workplace contains asbestos?

If you suspect asbestos-containing materials in your home or workplace, do not disturb them. Contact a licensed asbestos professional to conduct an inspection and, if necessary, arrange for safe removal or encapsulation of the asbestos materials.

How can organisations prevent future asbestos crises?

Regular inspections and maintenance of buildings and infrastructure can help identify and address asbestos-containing materials before they become a hazard. Additionally, proper training for workers handling asbestos and strict regulations governing its use and disposal are crucial in preventing future crises.

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