Investigating the health effects of loose-fill asbestos insulation in the Australian Capital Territory, Australia.

  • Occupational and environmental health
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Asbestos causes mesothelioma and other cancers, although the health effects of residential exposure are less clear. We investigated the health effects of living in ~1100 houses insulated with loose-fill amosite asbestos in the 1970’s that were subsequently remediated in the 1980’s in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Australia.

We conducted four sub-studies: (1) a descriptive analysis of mesothelioma cases in the ACT, (2) focus groups of residents, (3) a cross-sectional survey of recent residents, and (4) a population-based cohort study examining a range of cancer outcomes. The cohort study linked all ACT addresses since 1984 to national cancer and death datasets to estimate incidence among those who had ever or never lived in these houses. Analyses were conducted using Stata and studies were approved by relevant ethics committees.

In descriptive analysis, (81%) of reported mesothelioma cases in the ACT were male and the rate between 2009-11 was 2.95 per 100,000 persons; similar to the rest of Australia. Living in affected homes resulted in high levels of stress with many residents experiencing loss of neighborhoods. Among surveyed residents, 53% (193/363) reported asbestos fibres were found in household living areas and 81% (119/140) of men entered roof spaces. In the cohort study of >1million individuals, the rate of mesothelioma among male residents was 2.54 (95%CI 1.02-5.24) times higher than among men who never lived in affected homes. There were no cases of mesothelioma among female residents. Standardized incidence ratios were elevated for some other cancers among residents.

This was an unusual exposure to asbestos in the Australian domestic setting, although this type of insulation may be widespread in other countries. Residential exposure to asbestos may be harmful and result in considerable community distress. Our findings provide support to government efforts to eliminate exposure. We recommend people avoid all exposure to asbestos-containing insulation.

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