Status:
Resolved
Health advisory:
150001
Date Issued:
01 Apr 2015 (updated from 24 October 2014)
Issued by:
Prof. Michael Ackland, Acting Chief Health Officer, Victoria
Issued to:
Health professionals (particularly in the Brimbank area)

Key messages

  • This Advisory provides updated information to health professionals on the asbestos issue which has been of concern to the Sunshine community.
  • An investigation is underway to examine concerns raised about non-occupational asbestos exposure from the Wunderlich Asbestos Factory in McIntyre Rd prior to the site closure in 1982.
  • A testing program involving the roof cavities, soil and air to determine whether levels currently pose a health risk to the community has almost concluded. Results to date have been reassuring and all homes tested are safe to occupy.
  • Analysis of data from Cancer Council Victoria reported a small increase in mesothelioma cases around the former Wunderlich site. Due to the long latency period for mesothelioma, this increase reflects historical exposure including the period when the factory was operating.  
  • Patients living in the area or patients with respiratory symptoms may present with concerns about possible exposure. Concerns will no doubt be real and investigation / management should be based on exposure history and clinical merit.

What is the issue?

The community is concerned about a number of issues related to the old Wunderlich asbestos factory site at 27 McIntyre Road, Sunshine North.

Firstly, there is concern about local residents with asbestos-related disease who reported exposures from the factory during its operation. It operated from the 1920s onward; ceased production in 1982; and clean up and remediation was completed in 1985.

Secondly, concern relates to the possibility of a current risk of exposure from asbestos identified in the ceiling cavities of a number of homes close to the old factory site. The community is also concerned about asbestos found on and adjacent to the old factory site, related to the surfacing of previously buried asbestos material and illegal dumping.

EPA Victoria has undertaken site assessments and arranged suitable removal and containment of asbestos material found.

Asbestos was a commonly utilised building material during the 1940-80s and can be found in walls, ceilings and floors of buildings built around that time. Some patients living in this area are understandably anxious about their health and may seek testing as well as information and support. Local general practitioners have an important role to play in supporting this community and are encouraged to draw on the resources available to provide that support.

Who is at risk?

It’s important to note that the risk is different for different people. It depends on a number of factors including the intensity and duration of exposure (cumulative exposure) and the type of asbestos involved. Smoking also increases the risk (approx. 5 – 17 fold) of developing lung cancer for those previously exposed to asbestos.

Exposures to asbestos can be classified as occupational, domestic or neighbourhood. Occupational exposures are the heaviest and the highest risk exposures relate to direct work with asbestos materials, although risk varies by specific work role in asbestos factories. Domestic exposures occur when fibres are brought into the home from an asbestos factory, usually on the clothing of workers. Neighbourhood exposures relate to fibres blown off an operating factory site and are considered to carry the lowest risk of these three types.

Some patients, however, may have had high intensity or frequent exposures when they were children and played on the Wunderlich factory site in the asbestos piles.

Current ambient air levels of asbestos in Sunshine North are at background levels (indistinguishable from other parts of Melbourne) and pose a negligible risk.

Asbestos building materials are found in many homes built before 1990, especially in eaves and internal / external wall cladding, ceilings and fences. Whilst intact and undisturbed, asbestos in this form is not dangerous. Builders and do-it-yourself home renovators could expose themselves to asbestos fibres if they do not take the appropriate precautions when they disturb asbestos containing materials.

Symptoms

Asbestos can cause a range of diseases, including asbestosis, pleural plaques, mesothelioma and lung cancer. They may take many years and in the case of mesothelioma, many decades to develop.

Pleural plaques are generally asymptomatic but may be evident on chest x-rays or other chest imaging.

Asbestosis can present with breathlessness, tightness in the chest, or persistent coughing. It may be associated with abnormal lung function tests.

Lung cancer most commonly presents with a persistent cough and may include haemoptysis, dyspnoea or weight loss.

Patients with pleural mesothelioma may present with dyspnoea, chest pain (pleuritic or non-pleuritic), cough and weight loss, or any combinations of these symptoms.

Prevention and treatment

The best way to manage asbestos is to leave it alone if intact and in good condition. Detailed information on removal is available at Asbestos in Victoria