A RETIRED teacher diagnosed with mesothelioma more than four decades after building an asbestos-sided shed with Nelson Bay school students was awarded $500,000 in damages only weeks before he died in May.
Len Lavis, 76, died less than three months after he was diagnosed, six months after experiencing the first symptoms, and two weeks after a bedside hearing of the NSW Dust Diseases Tribunal at his Salamander Bay home.
His death prompted lawyer and former Federal Government Asbestos Safety and Eradication Council member Tanya Segelov to warn that while the risk of contracting mesothelioma was quite small, renovations and projects from decades ago had devastating consequences for some people.
The risk from renovations was as acute and real today as 40 years ago, Ms Segelov said.
“Because there’s no immediate effect we are not very good as human beings in recognising the long term risks posed by asbestos in our environment and there’s a disconnect between knowing the dangers of asbestos and taking precautions to protect ourselves,” she said.
Mr Lavis was an industrial arts teacher at Nelson Bay Central School in 1974 when he and another teacher built a shed to deal with the school’s storage problems, using a metal roof and asbestos cement fibro planks. It was four years before asbestos was identified on building products.
The project was funded by the school’s Parents and Citizens Association and the two teachers worked on it after hours. But Mr Lavis told the Dust Diseases Tribunal that students worked on the shed during school hours “as a method of teaching them various carpentry skills”.
The tribunal was told the whole school was later demolished. Mr Lavis also used asbestos products during renovations at his three Nelson Bay area homes over a number of decades.
Mr Lavis was born at Wallsend, became a teacher in 1963, married his wife Lorraine in 1964 and retired in 1996.
He was fit, active and healthy until late October, 2017 when he first experienced shortness of breath.
By mid-November he was referred to a cardio-thoracic specialist who could find no problems after a biopsy, but by Christmas Mr Lavis was using pain medication and by early February he was referred to the Calvary Mater hospital for pain management.
On February 15, after a second biopsy, he was experiencing “intense, unremitting pain” and was told he had mesothelioma and only weeks to live.
Dust Diseases Tribunal Justice Andrew Scotting issued a judgment on the final day of Mr Lavis’s hearing against Amaca Pty Ltd, the company formerly known as James Hardie.
He described Mr Lavis as “the pillar of the family and a much loved patriarch” whose death came shortly after the onset of a disease that was “swift and unrelenting”.
He ordered Amaca to pay $482,000 in damages plus legal costs.
Ms Segelov said it was not unusual that Mr Lavis and another teacher built a shed with students at a school, and it was not unusual for such a project to end years later with a case for damages over mesothelioma.
She said the NSW Government needed to follow the Victorian Government’s lead and remove all asbestos from schools.
“It should be something every state does. A lot of the school buildings are old or degraded which is where the asbestos problems start to show. No kids should be exposed to asbestos in their schools,” she said.
Last week the NSW Government offered free testing for hazardous loose-fill asbestos across five Hunter local government areas after the product was found in a Glendale home – the first case in the region.
Loose-fill asbestos is raw crushed asbestos which was commonly used for ceiling insulation in the 1960s and 1970s.
A Department of Education spokesperson said Nelson Bay Central School was a school site from the 1890s until mid 1998 when students moved to a new Tomaree Public and Tomaree High education complex at Salamander Bay.
The department was “not currently in a position to confirm the reference to students taking part in the construction of a shed at Nelson Bay Central School in 1974”, the spokesperson said.