A survey by the defense contractor SYPAQ Systems has found that the Australian Navy continues to use materials containing asbestos, putting sailors and civilian contractors at risk.
The use of asbestos-containing parts was officially banned in December of 2003, however the Navy was given an exemption to continue using chrysotile (white) asbestos parts for an additional three years. Two provisions were given to qualify for the exemption: the parts had to be “mission-critical” and no other non-asbestos containing products could be found as replacements. The Defense Force won an extension of that exemption until 2010, despite concerns and opposition to the continued use of the deadly material.
The SYPAQ reports that asbestos fibers were found in 250,000 spare and replacement parts held in naval stores. Products such as gaskets, hoses, sheeting and packing material that contained asbestos were found mixed in with other non-contaminated parts without any identification or warning labels. The risk assessment report states that potentially thousands of Australian sailors and defense contractors have been exposed without their knowledge as a result of the asbestos products still being circulated and used.
Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the lining of the long and is caused by exposure to asbestos dust and fibers. Asbestosis is an irreversible lung condition that results after inhalation of asbestos that causes distortion of the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Other lung related diseases that cause pleural plaques and thickening are also caused by exposure to asbestos. All three conditions can occur from occupational or environmental exposure and are virtually incurable. It can take anywhere between 10 to 40 years after the time of exposure for symptoms to develop.
The Navy contends that it is in the process of eradicating chrysotile products and establishing a reliable register. Defense Minister Fitzgibbon has told Defense that they have until next year to rid themselves of any asbestos threat. The navy’s liability could be as high as $115 million for breach of safety regulations and exposing employees to the carcinogenic hazard.