DIY renovators at risk of cancer with fears sparked for 'third wave' of asbestos victims
The lawyer for a man awarded a landmark $3 million payout from asbestos maker James Hardie has warned that the rise in popularity of home renovation TV shows could be putting more lives at risk.
- Matthew Werfel was recently diagnosed with mesothelioma due to asbestos
- His lawyer has warned popular home renovation TV shows are putting people in danger
- She says a mass media campaign is needed to warn of the dangers of asbestos
Adelaide’s Mathew Werfel, 42, was exposed to asbestos while renovating two homes in the late 1990s and early 2000s and was recently diagnosed with a rare form of mesothelioma.
Unaware that the homes contained asbestos, he was diagnosed in 2017 after he discovered a lump on the inside of his right leg.
He is what is known as the third wave of asbestos victims, people who come into contact with asbestos which is already present in a home during renovations.
Channel Seven’s House Rules and Channel Nine’s The Block are among two of the top home renovation shows in Australia, which promote making remarkable changes to homes in short time frames.
However, Mr Werfel’s lawyer, Annie Hoffman, said the rise in popularity of the shows and home renovations was increasing the danger.
“People take it upon themselves to do these types of renovations themselves without the knowledge and understanding that they could be putting their own lives at risk and the lives of their families at risk when doing it,” she said.
“With a lot of DIY-type renovator shows on TV at the moment, many Australians are turning to do those jobs themselves and putting themselves and the lives of their families at risk unknowingly.”
‘Huge lack of awareness’
She said there was a “huge lack of awareness” about the specific dangers of asbestos and more needed to be done to raise awareness.
“The vast majority of Australians do not have enough knowledge to protect themselves against the risks … they don’t know how to identify these products,” she said.
“It is impossible to quantify the number of people who will contract mesothelioma as a result of doing home renovations.”
She is calling for James Hardie to fund a mass media campaign to warn the Australian public about their product and the fact that there was still a hidden danger.
She said there was no evidence the company had ever considered running this type of awareness campaign.
“They had a slogan that they used … ‘renovate, don’t relocate’,” she said.
“So, they knew that people would be carrying out the type of work that Matthew [Werfel] was carrying out on their home.
“And in knowing that, they must have known that people would come across the existing asbestos materials, including existing James Hardie asbestos materials when doing those renovations.”
TV shows have ‘clear guidelines’
In a statement, a Channel Seven spokesperson said precautions were made on all worksites during filming and production of House Rules.
“House Rules worksites are governed by best practice health and safety rules and regulations,” the spokesperson said.
“In particular with asbestos, we have very clear and precise guidelines.
“Until the experts give the all clear and declare a building safe, the whole site is off limits.”
A spokesperson from Channel 9 said similar regulations were in place during production of The Block and multiple warnings were aired.
“We take the issue of asbestos safety seriously,” a spokesperson said.
“Appropriate checks and management of the building site around asbestos and the many other occupational health and safety regulations are stringently adhered and have been an integral part of the show over the past 15 series.
“Over the years we have aired multiple warnings around the risks of asbestos.”
Bunnings — one of Australia’s leading hardware stores — has also addressed its concern with asbestos and the dangers it posed to home renovators.
Managing director Mike Schneider said Bunnings had actively supported asbestos awareness campaigns, including Asbestos Awareness Month in November.
“We absolutely recognise the need to ensure renovators are aware of the risk of asbestos exposure,” he said.
“In SA specifically, this includes providing display tables and information throughout Asbestos Awareness Month, with ‘Betty the Asbestos Bus’ visiting stores as well as having relevant representatives in store to talk to customers throughout the year and providing information for stores to give customers.
He said Bunnings was also meeting with the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency on a number of initiatives.
‘We need a nationwide campaign’
Another joining the fight for more awareness is Lesley Shears from the Asbestos Victims Association South Australia, who said home renovating was now a “really risky business”.
She said renovators needed to know what they were dealing with.
Renovating houses has become very popular following the success of numerous television shows. (Clarissa Thorpe: ABC News)
“If your house was built between the 1950s and the 1980s it is highly likely to contain some asbestos,” she told ABC Radio Adelaide.
“The post-war housing boom in the 1950s when there was a shortage of building materials, people thought asbestos panels were just the best thing.
“We desperately want to educate people … we need a nationwide campaign.”
‘One in three houses have asbestos’
Peter Tighe is the chair of the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute and said the need to get information to the public was “really critical”.
“The thing that most Australians don’t realise is there are over 3,000 products that contained asbestos that were used in the building industry in Australia,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.
“One in three houses in Australia have asbestos-containing material in them.
“The issue about getting information out to the public is really critical, especially for DIY home renovators.”
He also sounded out a warning to home renovators to make sure all materials and worksites had been checked.
“The fibres are microscopic, they can sit in the air for up to three days and we don’t know what the safe level of exposure is … it’s a very invasive fibre,” he said.
The ABC has again contacted James Hardie for comment.