Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral with properties that make it ideal for building and construction. It is fire resistant, makes excellent thermal insulation, is inexpensive to produce, and when added to cement, increases its strength and lifespan. Tragically, asbestos also has a downside that far outweighs its usefulness as a building product. The fibres and dust produced by asbestos can result in diseases that are often deadly, and don’t reveal their symptoms until decades after exposure.
This article will look at the diseases caused by asbestos, the people who are most at risk, and what you can do to seek compensation if you or a loved one have been affected by exposure to asbestos.
What are asbestos related illnesses?
Asbestos contains thin gossamer-like fibres, which can be released into the air if the asbestos is disturbed. These fibres can be inhaled and are responsible for lung-related diseases such as pleural mesothelioma, pericardial mesothelioma, peritoneal mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, pleural disease, and pleural plaques.
Unfortunately, no treatment can reverse the effects of asbestos on your lungs. There are, however, treatments that can relieve the symptoms and help slow the progress of the disease.
Who is at risk?
People most at risk of exposure to asbestos fibres include those who are involved in trades such as construction, carpentry, plumbing, electrical engineering, insulation work, and shipbuilding, as asbestos has been extensively used in these industries.
NSW has the highest number of deaths from mesothelioma in Australia, as it was the first state to begin mining asbestos and produced the largest amounts. Other states have varying proportions of mesothelioma sufferers in relation to their size and the presence of natural asbestos. The largest number of people affected by asbestos, however, was by far those who helped mine and produce it for James Hardie, the company that went on to use asbestos long after they knew of the dangers it posed to their workforce.
The reason that Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma related deaths in the world is because we also had one of the highest rates of asbestos use in the world. From the 1950s to 1970s, asbestos was used extensively in the construction, building, and textile industries, and continued to be used even after it had been banned in other countries.
During this period, the Australian asbestos market was dominated by James Hardie Industries, who had asbestos mines all across Australia. They were also involved in the manufacture of a wide range of building and insulation products containing asbestos, and their waste products were even used in playgrounds, driveways, and paths.
Today, around half of all asbestos related claims are made by ex-employees of James Hardie Industries, who are still suffering decades later, even after the company was hit with massive lawsuits and moved overseas.
Despite extensive cleanups, asbestos remains in many Australian buildings and infrastructure, which is why people at risk of asbestos now include telephone technicians, building demolition workers, and even ordinary householders who do their own renovations.
Who is eligible to make a claim?
Because asbestos related diseases take so long to reveal themselves, there is no legal time limit on when a claim can be made. You may even be able to claim if:
- You no longer work where you were exposed to asbestos, or the company no longer exists,
- You only suffered secondhand exposure through someone else,
- You were a contractor or were self-employed,
- You were or are a smoker,
- If the exposure occurred during home renovations,
- If it happened interstate or overseas, and
- If you’re claiming on behalf of a loved one who has died as a result of exposure.
The basis for a claim is not the exposure to asbestos itself, but whether or not you have been diagnosed with an asbestos related disease.
What can you claim?
A monetary value is usually set when awarding a claim for an asbestos related illness. This reflects the gap between your previous life and your life after contracting the disease. You can usually claim compensation for things like:
- Pain and suffering,
- Loss of life expectancy,
- Past and future medical expenses,
- Past and future loss of earnings,
- Home and nursing help, and
- Drug and medical treatment.
Types of compensation
While anyone with an asbestos related disease can make a claim under common law, to be successful you usually need to prove that it was caused by someone else’s negligence (usually an employer or the manufacturer of a product containing asbestos).
The issue of causation has been argued long and hard in Australian courts over the years and will continue to be tested, meaning it is never guaranteed that a claim will be successful. Some legal precedents have been set, however, and these include:
- The Fatal Accidents Amendment Act (2008) – This act grants compensation to the families of victims who have died from mesothelioma
- The 2008 Bernie Banton Law – This allows Victorian citizens to seek compensation if diagnosed with asbestosis, and to seek more compensation at a later date if they develop mesothelioma
- The Wrongs Act (1958) – This grants compensation for the loss of income to anyone made ill by exposure to asbestos on the job, and also through secondhand exposure.
The laws regarding asbestos compensation differ from state to state in Australia, so if you are considering making a claim for compensation, you should consult with compensation lawyers in your particular state or territory.
If a common law claim is not an option for some reason, you may have access to other forms of compensation for asbestos related diseases. These could include:
- Superannuation – Many people don’t realise their super often has extra benefits, such as this
- Workers compensation – If you contracted the asbestos related disease at work, you may be entitled to compensation
- Insurance – Your life insurance, income protection, sickness, and accident insurance may also include provisions for compensation in the event that you contract an asbestos related disease.