North believes she developed mesothelioma either from DIY renovations of a house in London during the early 1990s, where she was working as a chartered accountant for a Japanese securities house, or during a subsequent home renovation in Australia upon his return in 1995.
“I knew absolutely nothing about the danger of asbestos. I took no precautions and did not use professional help,” North says. “I am not aware of any possibility where my professional work might have led to mesothelioma,” she says.
In Manly, a harbor suburb about 17 kilometers northeast of Sydney’s central business district, engineer Matthew Klintfalt lovingly poses for a portrait of his deceased mother Carol, as he talks about her eight-year battle with mesothelioma, which is believed to have contracted while doing home renovations.
“I worked in sales, so there was no other way to make her sick other than renovations,” Klintwalt says of his mother, who died in September 2006 at age 65. Her illness before cancer was discovered,” he says. “They thought she would die within six months but she fought back, not knowing if the next Christmas would be her last.”
Sandy Foreman, 62, a makeup artist and grandmother, considers herself lucky because mesothelioma was recognized early and by chance when her doctor noticed an injury to her left lung in early 2016. Foreman, who has worked on several TV shows During the 1980s, he fell ill when workers were replacing asbestos sound insulation in the corridor of a Sydney TV studio.
Her arduous treatment included removal of the lung and parts of her rib, the lining surrounding her heart, and chemotherapy and radiation. “It’s not a cure,” she says from her home in the Outlands northwest of Sydney. “I am no longer in pain but there is discomfort, tension and anxiety.”
Her experience is supported by extensive international medical evidence that transient exposure can be fatal. About one in three Australian homes contain asbestos-containing products, according to an analysis of the Australian Mesothelioma Registry, part of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Asbestos has been used in the manufacture of more than 3,000 building and decoration products and can be found in any home built or renovated prior to 1990 and in any commercial and non-residential property built or renovated prior to 2004. Manufacturers such as James Hardie and CSR were partially prohibited from including Asbestos was in products in 1987 and banned outright in 2003.
“Despite this, some imported products still contain asbestos that goes into new construction,” North says.
Specialists say widespread ignorance of the dangers and the nation’s obsession with home renovations is a potentially fatal combination. Analysis by KPMG indicates that exposure to old asbestos during home renovation was the single largest source of mesothelioma allegations in Australia for the 11 years to the end of 2019.
“The myth is that while asbestos occurs naturally, it is only dangerous when disturbed, such as when wallcovering containing the product is sawn or sanded,” North says. “But on-site asbestos has a lifespan of perhaps 50 years and a lot of it breaks down and releases the fibres. A limited one-time exposure can eventually lead to cancer and death years later,” she says. “While the industry is somewhat aware of the risks, most DIY enthusiasts aren’t like that.”
High property prices, high stamp duties and the cost of moving in, which is usually about 10 percent of the sales price, encourage new and existing homeowners to consider renovation. $65 billion is expected to be spent this year by renovations, an increase of about 11 percent over the previous 12 months, according to IBISWorld.
North has spent the last three years investigating the many “misconceptions and half-truths” surrounding who is at risk for asbestos-related disease. The Deakin University law professor previously worked for multinational corporations and investment banks in the world’s major financial centers, including London and New York. “I want to do absolutely anything possible to save other people’s lives,” she says. “If my work for the past three years has saved one life, that makes it worth it.”
Her analysis of more than 40,000 homeowners found that more than two-thirds were unaware that asbestos was a health hazard. North also believes that governments and companies, such as Amaka (James Hardy), have not done enough to publicize the dangers of asbestos legacy in the home and deaths from asbestos exposure outside the workplace.
“Many families believe that the risks for asbestos are limited to a small group of people, such as older working-class men, and the risks for the rest of the general population are very low,” she says. “These narrow perceptions are dangerous and lead to political complacency and public complacency.”
For example, recommendations made by the government’s 2012 report on asbestos elimination that range from awareness to eradication have not been fully implemented, she said. The federal government has created an agency that targets and eliminates asbestos and has a website that outlines how to identify asbestos, legal requirements, and how to remove it safely. Those concerned about the potential risks can check asbestosawareness.com.au for help.
Matthew Wervill, a South Australian home restorer, has successfully defended his claim for damages from James Hardy to the Supreme Court.
Werville, 42, was first exposed to asbestos as a teen while working as a fence contractor, and later while renovating the house, including while sanding and painting asbestos-cement shingles in his home in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. His allegations that Amaca (James Hardie) had failed to properly warn the public about the continuing risks posed by its products were met through the South Australian Employment Tribunal before the country’s High Court.
South Australia High Court Judge Leonie Farrell ruled, “By the time Mr Wervill was exposed, there could be no doubt that Amaka had known of the dangers to the restorers.”
It ruled that the risk of dust disease was reasonably predictable and that Amaca violated the duty of care to take reasonable steps that were available to reduce the risk. Damages were reduced by $800,000 to $2.3 million on appeal. Amaka asked the Supreme Court for special leave to appeal, but was denied.
Joanne Wade, Head of Asbestos Litigation, Slater Corporation & Gordon says she has represented victims in their 20s and 90s, including school teachers, chaplains, police officers, nurses, doctors and housewives involved in occupations ranging from mining and construction to shipbuilders and office workers.
“It knows no boundaries. It can infect anyone: young or old; men or women and from any walks of life,” she says, adding that cases of home renovation are “steadily increasing.”
“We’re seeing more and more people taking action around them or participating in the renewal process,” Wade says.
She adds that specialty law firms have extensive records that can track manufacturers of products used in renovations that can be used to track liability.
For the North, the problem is identifying threats so they can be managed properly, which means policy leaders and public health agencies must play a greater role in warning of the risks and halting imports of asbestos-containing products.
To help achieve this goal, her final act was to set up a registered charity, Asbestos Awareness Australia, to continue its work in understanding the problem and searching for answers.