Residents in Sydney’s east fear they may have been exposed to asbestos by last weekend’s storm.
A tornado ripped through the suburbs of Malabar, Chifley, and the Little Bay-La Perouse area early on Sunday morning. Winds exceeding 100km/h, tore roofs apart, destroying homes and parts of the local RSL and school.
But the biggest worry for residents was invisible and floating in the wind. Building material riddled with asbestos went flying through the air, landing on roads, parks and private property.
“As soon as the incident happened and it became apparent that the roof of the RSL club had come off and the material was identified as some asbestos material … that’s when council came in on-site and we engaged two licensed asbestos removal companies,” a spokesman for Randwick council told the Newsroom.
“At that stage everybody stopped work.” Not even the SES was able to do any remedial work in the area.
Police barricaded roads around the area and residents were told to stay in their properties and keep doors and windows closed, the spokesman said.
But not all residents in the area were advised of the health risk, The Newsroom was told. Some stood watching just metres from workers wearing full protective gear, sparking concern for their health when the danger became known.
The council spokesman responded: “The guys picking it up, that’s why they wear the masks and the costume … because they’re coming in close proximity.”
The asbestos debris was not fully cleared from public areas and pathways until 6:30 on Sunday evening, though the contractors “worked as quick as they could”.
“The contractors we engaged are [now] knocking on all affected properties and offering to inspect and remove asbestos from all private properties,” the spokesman said.
Randwick council said protocols were followed: “… air monitoring was installed after the asbestos was identified. That’s more of a precaution to work out is it still in the air, or spreading? If they can see it there then they identified it as asbestos.”
Professor Nico Van Zandwijk of the Asbestos Disease Research Institute told the Newsroom it was difficult to predict what exposure the residents have suffered. “Asbestos may travel long distances we know that. The fibres are very tiny and invisible to the eye, so it’s very difficult to predict what the level of exposure has been without proper fibre analysis.”
When asked what should residents look out for, Professor Van Zandwijk said that in most situations there is no sign or symptom after inhalation of asbestos fibres.
“Unfortunately the latency period between inhalation of asbestos and process of disease is long.”
Council claimed the problem was limited. “It’s not widespread; it’s a contained area in the proximity of the RSL club. The contractors we engaged are knocking on all affected properties and offering to inspect and remove asbestos from all private properties.”
But it admits the threat level cannot be pinned down.
“It’s hard to tell exactly what the level of risk was. The key thing is that any loose asbestos has now been picked up. Fortunately we had the rain which helps contain it as well.”
Professor Van Zandwijk confirmed that. “If it rains and the surrounding is wet then the risk is considerably lower… the asbestos fibres are basically washed away out of the air.
Council is awaiting the fibre count to confirm how much asbestos was in the air and how far it spread. But if residents were exposed, it will be an uneasy wait.
It may take 30 to 40 years before people know if they have been affected. – Story and photos by Kristin Venae