The NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour has just released a report about asbestos and its terrible legacy. According to the report asbestos-related disease will soon be killing more people in Australia than car and traffic accidents. Although production of asbestos products was discontinued during the 1980s, decades can pass between exposure to asbestos dust and the onset of cancers. By 2020 it is expected that more than 13,000 people will have been diagnosed with the lung cancer mesothelioma, which is invariably fatal.
I have an interest in this subject because in 1997 I published a book titled The fibro frontier: A different history of Australian architecture. Fibro was a good book for me. It wasn’t the first book I’d written but it was the first to give me a real reputation outside the Museum. It was also a good book for the Powerhouse, which co-published it with Transworld Publishers. Along with Australian Dream, Beyond architecture and others, we had a good decade of titles which engaged with design and culture in unusual ways. Unfortunately detours into vanity publishing eventually killed all that.
Fibro is not primarily about asbestos and its consequences. It focuses on the architectural and social impact of fibro, arguing that the fibro house is the most distinctive expression of Australian domestic architecture. When I was working on Fibro we considered calling the book ‘Fabulous fibro’ though fortunately we changed our minds, aware that fibro is anything but to people suffering from asbestos diseases.
But I’ve had plenty of occasions to ponder the relationship between fibro – asbestos-cement – as the building material which by the 1960s clad one third of houses in NSW and fibro as the material which condemned thousands to a painful death. I’ve spoken at conferences of asbestos disease lawyers and I’ve written expert witness opinions for law firms acting for and against James Hardie, Australia’s main manufacturer of asbestos products and the company which for decades avoided its responsibilities towards cancer sufferers, setting a new low in corporate behaviour. Many careers have been built on the basis of asbestos-induced suffering, not a comfortable thought even for someone on the fringes of that bonanza.
Gideon Haigh points out in his award-winning investigation Asbestos House: The secret history of James Hardie Industries: ‘Fibro has a rightly honoured place in Australian life, history, culture, even aesthetics – Charles Pickett’s 1997 book The Fibro Frontier is a splendid introduction’.
But Haigh also argues that fibro’s cultural and architectural significance is not necessarily dependant on the suffering it produced: ‘That asbestos has improved lives and taken lives are separate propositions’.
The amount of asbestos fibre in fibro was reduced during the 1950s and 1960s because of rising costs and a need to increase the material’s flexibility. But James Hardie did not seek to completely replace asbestos until the company’s future was on the line during the late 1970s; until then the company preferred to cajole, obfuscate and threaten its critics and plaintiffs.
Today there are still thousands of houses clad or lined with fibro. In addition many brick or timber homes have fibro used under eaves, in gable ends and ceilings while asbestos often turns up in unexpected places such as tiles, floor coverings and insulation. Fibro is generally safe when left alone but as the Ombudsman points out, no coordinated warning or inspection system exists to reduce the risk of people unintendedly releasing asbestos dust when renovating or altering their homes. There are no laws preventing home owners from working on their homes regardless of the presence of asbestos.
Mesothelioma is not just incurable; it is also capricious and pitiless. Many people (including my father) frequently exposed to asbestos dust suffered no adverse consequences; others were condemned from fleeting encounters. After picking off many who mined asbestos, made asbestos products or worked as builders, mesothelioma now ravages home renovators who carelessly meddled with fibro. In its terminal stages mesothelioma is brutally painful, rendering every breath a struggle against pain. As a judge of the Dust Diseases Tribunal wrote:
‘Those who suffer it reach a stage where it is necessary to fight for every breath, with every breath accompanied by pain so dreadful that the only way to avoid it is not to breathe. The choice between breathing and not breathing is no choice at all’.
If you have renovation ambitions, remind yourself of that frequently.