Australian Soldiers Face Asbestos Risk

Because Australia’s Defense Force still uses asbestos in much of its equipment, soldiers from that country remain at fairly high risk for health complications from asbestos exposure.

According to health groups and trade unions in Australia, who were quoted in a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, “the army, navy, and the air force will continue to use asbestos in hundreds of thousands of items of equipment – such as vehicle brake linings, engine gaskets and door seals – until the end of the decade after winning a three-year extension to their exemption.”

The exemption means another “10, 20, 30, who knows how many people” are likely to contract an asbestos-related disease, the executive director of Asbestos Diseases Victoria, Leigh Hubbard, said yesterday.

In 2001, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission prohibited the use of asbestos in workplaces beginning on January 1, 2004. But the military was exempt from those rules. While several industries received three year extensions that ended this year, the Defense Force is the only one that got another extension, which will last until December 31, 2010.

The article points out that the navy uses asbestos in more than 130,000 equipment parts, including in the Orion P3 aircraft and F1-11 fighter jets, which have asbestos in gaskets, brake linings, seals and fire barriers. Some army helicopters also still contain asbestos.

The assistant secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Geoff Fary, said almost every other industry in Australia had replaced its asbestos parts.

“We opposed the three-year extension because we believe there is no compelling evidence to support Defense’s claim that they’ve been unable to meet the deadline that virtually all of the rest of Australian industry has been able to meet.

“Alternative parts which don’t contain asbestos are available, and almost all other industries are using them.” The Government’s own documents said there was no safe level of asbestos exposure, Mr. Fary explained.

“This is awful, awful stuff. Basically we believe anyone – service people, civilian workers, contractors – exposed to these parts, there is a potential risk to their health.

“We’ve seen recently the tragic death of Bernie Banton, and it is known that exposure only needs to be once and brief for serious health problems to develop. The defense forces, as with all industry, should be moving heaven and earth to remove asbestos where they can, and we find it devastating that that’s not being done.”

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