Asbestos in the Hunter exposed 

MESOTHELIOMA is on the increase in the Hunter as the illness develops decades after patients’ exposure to asbestos.

NSW Central Cancer Registry statistics show that in 1972 no cases of mesothelioma were recorded in the Hunter New England health district.

In 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 25 people died in the region and 28 were diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Expectations are that numbers will become much higher.

Specialists and advocates suggest that cases will peak between 2020 and 2030, with about 40,000 people expected to contract an asbestos-related disease. Estimates are that of those cases, about 13,000 will contract a fatal mesothelioma.

The Cancer Council NSW defines mesothelioma as a rare type of cancer that affects the protective membrane around the body’s internal organs, the mesothelium.

It usually affects the pleural membranes around the lungs, but can also occur in the lining of the abdomen or around the heart.

Mesothelioma was almost always caused by exposure to asbestos.

Development of mesothelioma usually occurred 25 to 50 years after asbestos exposure, the council said.

Calvary Mater Newcastle senior staff specialist Fiona Abell, who has an interest in lung malignancy, said the hospital had a steady stream of patients with mesothelioma.

‘‘I’m seeing people now clinically that have had exposure in the early to mid-1970s,’’ she said. ‘‘They’re in their 50s or 60s now. They were often working as apprentices in the dockyard and things like that where they had exposure to asbestos.’’

Dr Abell said mesothelioma was   incurable. Chemotherapy had a modest effect, increasing survival to about 16 months. Without treatment, survival was usually less than a year.

Surgery was not curative and suitable only for selected patients.

‘‘The bottom line is it’s really palliative management from the outset for 95per cent of patients,’’ said Dr Abell, adding that clinical trials were needed to find better therapies.

Meanwhile, hundreds of illegal asbestos dump sites have been uncovered across the region in recent years. A tonne of  asbestos roofing was dumped this week on a Belmont bush track.

 ‘‘Mums and dads are going through there all the time with kids on their bikes,’’ nearby resident Alan Pernice said yesterday.

‘‘It’s a worry, particularly when the wind is blowing. Some little kid could be getting a death sentence.’’

The community is paying millions  a year to clean up the dumpers’ mess. It will cost about $6000 just to remove the asbestos dumped at Belmont, which is on Hunter Water land.

‘‘Efforts are being undertaken to identify who is illegally dumping and we will seek to prosecute within the full extent of the law,’’ a Hunter Water spokeswoman said yesterday.

Lake Macquarie City Council recently paid $3880 to remove 4.3tonnes of dumped asbestos.

‘‘Illegal dumping costs our community more than just dollars, it creates serious environmental and health risks,’’ waste environment manager Keith Stevenson said.

There have been five successful prosecutions for  asbestos dumping in the Hunter in three years. Another two cases are before the Land and Environment Court.  Fines   can be up to $1,000,000 for corporations and $250,000 for individuals.

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