A deadly legacy that must be well managed

The McMulliin building at the University of Newcastle’s Callaghan campus provides a perfect case study of how toxins that were widely used in years gone by have left a heavy burden on today’s administrators. 

Built in 1965, the building contains a variety of asbestos building products that were typical of the era. 

Tragically, asbestos has left a devastating toll among the thousands of Australians, including many in the Hunter, who were exposed to it. 

The NSW Central Cancer Registry shows there were no cases of mesothelioma in the Hunter New England Health district in 1972. However, approximately 25 people have died from the disease in the region each year over the past five years. 

Sadly, the number is expected cases will peak between 2020 and 2030, with about 40,000 people expected to contract an asbestos-related disease. 

Until recently, government policy tended to let sleeping dogs lie regarding asbestos – the thinking was that asbestos was only dangerous when its fibres came free from cutting, drilling or sanding. The emphasis is now on proactively removing asbestos and accurately recording when and how people are exposed to it. 

The establishment of an asbestos safety and eradication agency has facilitated the removal of asbestos from government and commercial buildings, increased awareness of asbestos risks. 

The University of Newcastle has been proactive in the removal of asbestos and the management of the remaining risk in the McMullin Building since the mid-1980s. 

While a concerted effort has been made to remove as much of the material as possible, some risk still remains today. 

A 2015 report found that asbestos was still present in window sealant, ceiling coating, switchboard insulation and the soft lining of the building’s eaves. While some of the materials posed no threat, others had the potential to become airborne. 

The latest air monitoring tests around the building show the level of airborne asbestos is within safe limits.

The university’s management of the McMullin Building and those like it is commendable.

Until buildings containing asbestos are demolished, no expense or effort should be spared to ensure that they remain safe for those who live and work in them.

Issue: 38,452