Asbestos: lessons must be learned

This newspaper's investigation into the toxic legacy of asbestos has made for sobering reading.

The mineral in its natural state is a bundle of fibres and comes in a variety of forms.

It was once deemed something of a "miracle material'', given its properties of strength, pliability, insulation and fire-resistance, which made it suitable for use in a wide range of building products.

From the late 1930s, New Zealand couldn't get enough of the stuff.

At the peak of its popularity in the 1970s, the country was importing 12,500 tonnes of raw asbestos annually.

It was ubiquitous in homes built or altered between 1940 and 1990 and commercial buildings between 1940 and 2000, found in everything from roofing materials and wall claddings to vinyl floors and insulation.

Yet it is now known as a "silent killer''; its deadly microscopic fibres inhaled by unsuspecting victims when the product is exposed or damaged, lying dormant for decades, but leading to asbestosis, lung cancer, or malignant mesothelioma.

Victims suffer in the most appalling way, struggling to breathe from thickening lung tissue, slowly suffocating from lungs full of fluid and asbestos fibres.

The "first wave'' felled miners and handlers who had extensive and prolonged exposure to the mineral; tradesmen made up the "second wave'' of deaths; now it is unclear whether a "third wave'', largely involving DIYers, has peaked, or in fact still lies decades ahead.

What is known is that asbestos is now blamed for 170 deaths each year, making it New Zealand's leading occupational killer.

Some research estimates asbestos-related deaths in New Zealand could reach the tens of thousands.

The country banned imports of raw asbestos in 1984 - but that was decades after other countries had regulated the mineral.

And it is simply inconceivable that we banned imports of products containing asbestos only this month.

Australia did so in 2003 and another 56 countries have long since done so. Our ban won't come into effect until October.

Little wonder it is feared we aren't even close to "peak asbestos''.

Our "she'll be right'' attitude is not only shameful, it is fatally flawed.

All the Government can do now in terms of asbestos is manage the appalling legacy.

There is no need to panic, for products are not a danger until they are disturbed in some way.

Education will be vital, though. How many homeowners, DIYers, young tradies, will still be unaware of the hazards?

Wider lessons must be learned, too. For the problem is not confined to asbestos.

There is the ongoing leaky homes legacy, which has cost the country billions of dollars.

Only recently there have been revelations of dodgy steel imports and other substandard building products making their way into the country - and already used on major infrastructure.

Experts have said we are an easy "dumping ground'' for products because of weak regulations.

That is chilling, particularly given the rate of building in the country at the moment - on the Christchurch rebuild, in the frenzied Auckland housing market, and locally, in Central Otago and the Queenstown Lakes District.

New Zealanders deserve far, far better - in regulation, oversight and speedy action.

While some bemoan any form of red tape, and "self-regulation'' is the new mantra, there are real repercussions if we don't monitor the building industry appropriately.

New Zealanders must be confident our purchasing, building, inspection and consenting processes are robust and well-resourced.

This small and increasingly embattled country cannot afford the economic implications of any more building crises.

And, we cannot put more lives at risk.

To do so would be to stamp on the graves of those who have died preventable deaths.

Our relaxed attitude needs to be consigned to the scrap heap along with these dodgy products and dubious processes.

It would be unforgivable if we learn nothing from the mistakes of the recent past and present.

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