National Asbestos Awareness Week 2019
Ken’s Journey with asbestos disease ends
This week is National Asbestos Awareness Week and the Asbestos Disease Support Society says it is timely to not only remind all Australians about the dangers of harmful asbestos fibres but also to remember those who have died as a result of contracting an asbestos related disease.
It’s a fact of life that living in Australia means living with asbestos”, said Trevor Torrens, General Manager of the Society. Australia was one of the highest worldwide users of asbestos through history, and despite its use being banned since 2003, large amounts of asbestos are still present in many Australian homes, workplaces and the environment.
It is estimated that 4,000 Australians die from asbestos-related diseases every year.
At the height of its use, asbestos was in over 3,000 products and many of these products are still contained in our homes and workplaces.
“Unfortunately, we are still seeing the fall out for people who worked with asbestos containing products like fibro, brake linings and lagging on pipes prior to the Australia-wide ban,” Mr Torrens said.
Retired Darwin carpenter Ken Selwood is one of the many Australians who was diagnosed with the incurable disease mesothelioma, an aggressive from of cancer that develops in the linings of the lungs, abdomen or heart as a result of the inhalation of microscopic asbestos fibres. (Over 700 Australians are still diagnosed with mesothelioma each year).
Ken was first diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2016. In October, Ken lost his battle.
Ken’s first exposure to asbestos was at the age of 16 as an apprentice carpenter cutting asbestos containing fibro sheeting with an electric jigsaw and installing super 6 fencing – a well known asbestos building product. (Asbestos fibres are around 200 times thinner than a human hair, can be invisible and be inhaled easily. When disturbed, they can become trapped deep in the lungs and cause damage over a long time. It can take many years for an asbestos related disease to develop after a person is exposed to asbestos – the latency period, which is commonly 20 to 30 years after exposure).
“I was working with asbestos from the time I was a 16-year-old apprentice until the eighties,” he said. “No one ever told us to wear a mask. All I ever did was go to work and to find out all these years later that I have a cluster of tumours, sitting there like a bunch of grapes on my left lung, it was a shock.”
Tragically, the wife of Ken’s employer also died from mesothelioma from washing her husband’s clothes.
Ken also thinks he may have been exposed during the clean-up from Cyclone Tracey. He and his wife Di first moved to Darwin in 1974 and experienced the devastation of Cyclone Tracey. “We moved to Darwin from WA in 1974, just in time for Cyclone Tracey. There was devastation everywhere. Our house was one of the few that survived in the street. As for asbestos, it was everywhere”, Ken said.
“When he was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2016, we didn’t think he would get to see another 12 months. We were told the average life expectancy following diagnosis was 11 months”, his wife Di said.
While there is no cure for mesothelioma, in May 2017 Ken was given the option of having a procedure known as a radical extra pluropnecumonectomy. This invasive operation involves the removal of the lung, chest wall and lining of the heart in one piece. The lymph nodes that drain the lung area are also removed. In conjunction with the surgery Ken also underwent extensive and painful chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Ken was advised the operation could give him a further 10 years. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
“Ken fought so hard and took the high-risk gamble of the extra pluropnecumonectomy operation and radiotherapy in Sydney by world renowned Prof McCaughan, which possibly gave him a bit more time, but not without a lot of pain and suffering. But he did have 3 more years with his grandchildren. Mesothelioma from working with asbestos stays in the cells and we always knew it would come back. Asbestos kills!! Forty-seven years of marriage, it’s hard to comprehend life on my own, the loneliness, no sense of purpose after 3 years being a full-time carer”, Di said.
“Asbestos is still impacting the community, even though its use and importation was banned in 2003. Ken’s story, while tragic, is just one of the many thousands as a result of working with asbestos, with many more to come”, Mr Torrens said.
Asbestos Awareness Week is a chance for all Australians to become aware of where in the home or workplace asbestos could be, and to make sure they know what to do to avoid becoming exposed.
The Asbestos Disease Support Society is a registered charity and was established in 1992 to support sufferers of asbestos related disease, their families and caregivers and promotes awareness about the risks of exposure to asbestos.