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It was a winter’s day when Herman Maifoffer walked out of his home for what he knew would be the last time.
The first wave mined asbestos and the second wave – generally tradespeople – worked with manufactured asbestos. The third wave brought it into their homes, mostly do-it-yourself home renovators exposed while fixing up the family home.
He had helped build the small three-bedroom house in Cabramatta where his three children had grown up and where he had lived for 40 years.
As he was wheeled into an ambulance, his wife Rosemary asked if he wanted one last look around.
“No,” he said. “I just want to go, because this house killed me”.
Six days later, on August 17, 2015, he died of mesothelioma. Rosemary can see the thing that killed him from her kitchen sink – a children’s bedroom. She helped build it.
Herman is a member of the third wave of asbestos victims. The first wave mined asbestos and the second wave – generally tradespeople – worked with manufactured asbestos. They suffered mesothelioma and other conditions associated with high asbestos exposure, such as asbestosis.
The third wave brought it into their homes, mostly do-it-yourself renovators exposed while fixing up the family home.
Herman and Rosemary bought their home in 1976 for $30,000. The house was a bit of a squeeze and money was tight so Herman decided to build an extension using fibro cement sheeting he bought from a hardware store.
When he was diagnosed with mesothelioma 40 years later, he suspected the sheeting contained asbestos. He remembered using a spare sheet to patch up a hole in the garage. When he prised it off the wall he noticed a credit-card sized sticker attached to the reverse side with the manufacturer’s name – James Hardie.
The numbers of third-wave victims are not declining. In fact, lawyers specialising in asbestos cases warn the peak is yet to come, and that homeowners are still being put at risk.
Unlike the first and second waves, third-wave victims may have also exposed their children. Herman’s daughter Heidi remembers playing in asbestos dust when her father was building the back room, using off cuts like chalk to draw on the ground in the backyard.
“I said to Mum, ‘What about us, we were all exposed,” she says today. “Every time I have a cough I think ‘Is it dry?’ or if I get a twinge or some muscular pain I think, ‘Mesothelioma, I could have mesothelioma’.”
Mesothelioma, once known as an old man’s disease, is now being diagnosed in people in their 40s. It is one of the most deadly cancers and is caused by asbestos fibres lodging in the protective sac that covers the lungs. There is no cure but treatments are available.
Renovations underway on the 2016 season of The Block. Photo: Emily Power
Fixing the family home is one of the great Australian pastimes, with around 8 million home renovations taking place each year.
Statistics published last year by the Public Health Research and Practice journal show six out of every 10 mesothelioma sufferers today were involved in major home renovations involving asbestos.
Australia’s particular exuberance for home renovation has spilled over into our television viewing habits. Shows like Channel Nine’s The Block remain some of the highest rating programs, with contestants becoming celebrities in their own right.
But the shows don’t always win fans among asbestos awareness advocates. Peter Tighe, chief executive of the federal government’s Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, says he has written to The Block asking them to warn their viewers about asbestos dangers on screen.
“We have written to the producers of those shows asking can they put just a short warning on screen,” he says. “We write to them, you don’t get a response, you ring up, you get a media person who gives you spin.”
A spokeswoman for the Nine Network, which broadcasts The Block, says it has warned home renovators to conduct their own asbestos checks and informs viewers that hazardous materials audits have taken place before filming.
“We have asbestos warnings on the show’s website and explain to the audience the stringent methods we employ to ensure that asbestos is removed prior to works commencing,” she says.
Rod Smith’s wife Julie died of mesothelioma in 2011. He is now one of the lead campaigners at the Bernie Banton Foundation where he still receives calls from exuberant home renovators inspired by television shows like The Block.
“We had one person watch the show on a Friday night and then she smashed up her ensuite over the weekend – they have now totally contaminated their whole family, ” he says.
There’s no safe level of asbestos exposure. The greater the exposure the more likelihood of mesothelioma developing.
“This is the problem with these shows and they have a part to play,” says Smith. “The number one factor they should be highlighting is that they have had an asbestos assessment done and it has been removed or condensed down.”
Asbestos deaths increasing
Many now expect to see a growth in asbestos deaths arising from home renovations.
A June 2012 report by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations found home renovators had become an increasingly significant proportion of mesothelioma deaths.
“A developing demographic … is appearing in the population, and includes ‘do-it-yourself’ home renovators and their families,” the report stated. “In the absence of timely and decisive intervention, many more people for generations to come will continue to contract these avoidable incurable fatal illnesses.”
Four years later, in April last year, the Public Health, Research and Practice journal released its study that found about six in 10 mesothelioma sufferers had done major unpaid home renovations involving asbestos products. It also found four out of 10 had lived in a house during major renovations.
“We are going to see more of this and we haven’t seen it flatten out or peak yet,” says Theodora Ahilas, national head of asbestos diseases at law firm Maurice Blackburn.
Law firms such as Maurice Blackburn step in to help mesothelioma sufferers trace their exposure back to its source, and then sue the companies involved.
“I have been doing this for 27 years and what I have seen is a change in the profile of the person being diagnosed with mesothelioma,” says Ahilas.
Mesothelioma is a patient disease. It can remain dormant for decades, making it harder to pinpoint the companies responsible for manufacture or distribution.
Third-wave victims don’t have access to the same compensation schemes offered to sufferers exposed in their place of work, often leading them to sue the company responsible for the asbestos exposure.
“If you have someone who is the main bread-winner then they need the peace of mind … to ensure their families are looked after once they are gone,” says Roger Singh, national principal with Shine Lawyers.
Singh, who specialises in asbestos cases, spends much of his time rifling through paperwork which is sometimes 40-years-old, to trace the culpability to companies that may have long since closed shop. As more time passes that job is getting harder.
“You ring around and you try to trace who the builder might have been involved, you look into who contracted to the builder, or ask ‘Can the contractor find out where they got their materials from or find old invoices’,” he says.
If you’re buying a house in NSW it’s up to you to check whether there’s any asbestos. The system puts the onus on the buyer to pay for an asbestos inspection report before they sign on the dotted line. But it’s a costly exercise and can be impractical if you’re buying a house at auction.
In Victoria there are also no formal pre-sale disclosure requirements around asbestos. Prospective buyers are encouraged undertake to take a building inspection, but like NSW, it is completely voluntary.
Last month acting NSW Ombudsman John McMillan called on the NSW government to bring in vendor disclosure laws, forcing home sellers to disclose asbestos risks to prospective buyers.
“It should be an essential part of a property transaction,” he says. “With 80 per cent of houses being sold at auction many buyers will not go down the path of getting an asbestos inspection for every property in which they may have an interest.”
It’s not the first time his office has called for the laws, and he suspects they haven’t come into effect because it would reveal the full scale of the problem.
“It’s possible that this law has not been introduced in NSW at present because of the number of houses and indirectly the number of people who would be affected, but I think we have reached the stage now that the government must proceed,” he says.
NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said she is considering McMillan’s recommendations.
‘I thought it was a mistake, it was not possible’
Cely Benchoam was diagnosed with mesothelioma in August 2016. Photo: Tony Walters
Asbestos has been prohibited from use in any building product since 1987. And while building material with asbestos still finds its way into the country, most asbestos exposure that occurs today is a legacy of the 1960s and 1970s.
Cely Benchoam was exposed following a two-week kitchen renovation in 1966.
In March 2016, when she was just shy of 70-years-old, she began feeling a sharp pain under her ribcage. She was diagnosed with silent pneumonia and told to rest. But the pain grew worse. In August 2016 she sought a second opinion and was told she had mesothelioma.
“I thought it was a mistake it, it was not possible … When he told me I thought, ‘I better go home and clean my cupboards and get my affairs in order’.”
Benchoam could not remember being exposed to asbestos. She sat down with a representative from the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute to try to pinpoint the exposure point.
“She asked me about every house I lived in since I was born, I went through them all and I came to the house in Princess Street.”
In 1966 Cely paid £8000 for a small house at 14 Princess Street, Rose Bay. She was 20-years-old, and had been married just one year earlier.
Cely Benchoam traced her exposure back to a two-week kitchen renovation in 1966, when she was pregnant. Photo: Supplied
“You can imagine the house was 80-years-old. It was in its original state, weatherboard … The floorboards were loose to the point that if you removed two of them you could see the sand underneath,” she says.
Benchoam, then pregnant, set about repairing the house with her husband, buying their building materials from the local Mitre 10 hardware store. She renovated the kitchen over two weeks, sweeping up the dust at the end of each day.
She is alarmed that she was misdiagnosed, and wants to see greater training for doctors.
She also hopes young couples renovating their homes will take the risks seriously. “When you are so keen to build a life for yourself you don’t think of the problems a simple renovation can bring,” she says. “We should not take a chance.”
Herman Maifoffer spent the winter before his death writing out birthday cards for the many birthdays of his grandchildren he knew he would never see.
His wife Rosemary has become the guardian of these cards and is left with the responsibility of delivering them. She keeps them in tucked away in her bedroom, still full of her husband’s clothes.
“He would always talk about seeing them growing up but he never got the chance … I am dreading to see what was written in them,” she says.