AUSTRALIAN sailors are being exposed to deadly asbestos fibres because the navy continues to use contaminated parts, years after they were outlawed.
- Navy using outlawed parts
- Contaminated with asbestos
- Sailors, civilians exposed to risk
Thousands of sailors and civilian contractors are likely to have come into contact with the potentially lethal carcinogen, a report seen by Australian Defence Force chiefs says.
The ADF could face fines of more than $100 million for breaches of work safety laws and the cost could soar by millions more dollars if sailors, as predicted, contract lung cancer or other diseases as a result of their exposure.
A risk assessment prepared by defence contractor SYPAQ Systems — and obtained by The Age under freedom-of-information laws — said "thousands of personnel" could have been exposed to chrysotile asbestos, a known cancer-causing agent.
The report said the risk to personnel was significant, exposure to asbestos was almost certain and the consequences were "potentially catastrophic".
Reports seen by The Age show nearly 250,000 parts held in naval stores are suspected of containing asbestos.
Hundreds of those parts, including gaskets, hoses and even compressed asbestos sheeting, are still being issued to ships and bases across the country in breach of state and federal laws.
"It can be assumed there have been over 350 issues of 775 asbestos items to operational units and ship repair organisations since 31 December 2003 (when asbestos use was prohibited)," the report said.
And thousands of parts still sit on shelves at the ADF's main warehouse at Moorebank, in Sydney, many of them unmarked as containing asbestos, and still being sent to ships and bases.
A defence spokesman told The Age the ADF did not accept the finding that "thousands" had been exposed and said the potential fines figure of $100 million was "purely speculative". He conceded, however, that asbestos parts had been issued in breach of bans.
Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has condemned as "unacceptable" the ADF's handling of the problem.
"We wouldn't let a major company get away with it and we should be just as tough on ourselves. I expect defence to change its culture of endless exemptions and waivers," Mr Fitzgibbon said.
The navy first conceded that sailors' health was being endangered in May when it issued an "all-ship-all-shore" warning identifying a fraction of the contaminated items still in widespread use.
"To date 45 items have been confirmed as containing asbestos. All units, ships and establishments are to check if stockholdings are held for the items listed … the asbestos eradication program is ongoing and there is likely to be additional candidates identified," the Defence Materiel Organisation alert warned.
The ADF's health service branch acknowledges asbestos is a known carcinogen that causes pleural plaques, asbestosis and lung cancer.
Even a single, brief exposure can cause mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that is almost always fatal. "There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos below which mesothelioma may not develop," an ADF fact sheet says.
A ban on the use of and import of asbestos-containing materials in Australia came into force on January 1, 2004. But the ADF requested and won an exemption to continue using chrysotile asbestos parts until 2007 on two strict provisos: that the parts were "mission-critical" — meaning their absence would ground equipment and jeop- ardise a mission — and that no non-asbestos replace- ment parts could be found.
Last month the exemption was controversially extended until 2010 by the Government's Safety and Compensation Council, despite fierce expert opposition, and even grave reservations from within the ADF.
The ACTU said every other industry in Australia had rid itself of asbestos in the required time and that the ADF should not be afforded special treatment. The Asbestos Diseases Society of Victoria said the exemption could result in the deaths of between 10 and 30 defence employees.
And Mal Pearce, director-general of the ADF's occupational health, safety and compensation branch, cited concerns raised by the federal workplace safety agency, Comcare, that the ADF was not trying hard enough to rid itself of asbestos.
He said Comcare's safety commission had "for some years been very flexible with defence, during which time defence had given repeated assurances that it would fix the problem of chrysotile eradication … some commissioners pointed out that a national prohibition on asbestos had existed since 2001."
It is likely that all of the navy's use of asbestos parts falls outside of the ADF exemption, and is illegal. Only 318 asbestos items were approved for defence use last December, and that number has since been reduced to 209.
Approved are some spare parts for the Caribou transport aircraft, F-111 strike bomber and Mk127 Lead-in Fighter fleets, and a small number of gaskets for ground equipment and vehicles.
The SYPAQ report said that the issue of "several hundred confirmed asbestos items" to operational naval units was "in direct contravention of state and federal laws".
As well, the ADF continues to import asbestos-containing materials into Australia from the USA, which allows the use of asbestos, but only under strict conditions. Australia, with an outright ban on asbestos products, has no regulations regarding its use.
"The US and Australia have different asbestos management policies and as a result many asbestos items are being supplied through foreign military sales unchecked."
And it found hundreds of asbestos-containing items had been sent from naval stores to ships and bases. In some cases they had been returned to stores for reissue.
"The transfer between stores and workshops and from workshops to work site and possibly back again if not fully used, demonstrates the potential exposure of a large and varied group of defence and civilian personnel, which could easily amount to thousands of personnel," the report said.
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