Hundreds of asbestos pieces found across remote NT community but health risk is low, study finds.
A Northern Territory government-commissioned report has identified hundreds of pieces of asbestos debris littered across the remote Aboriginal community of Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island, including near a church, clifftops and an arts centre.
But the Territory’s health authorities said there were no health warnings relating to asbestos in the community 550 kilometres north-east of Darwin, and there was no need for residents to be concerned.
The report said recreational activities like ceremonial dancing, sports and campfires could generate airborne asbestos particles, but found risk of this was mostly low.
A spokeswoman for the Northern Territory Department of Chief Minister said a multi-agency Working Group had been set up to develop a “whole of community” action plan focusing on short- and longer-term priority actions to address the risks.
“There are no current health warnings or need for community concern, however, to ensure the community is aware of the presence of asbestos and some of the areas where the risk of asbestos exposure is higher the Working Group is providing information to the Galiwin’ku community,” the spokeswoman said.
Separately, the NT government recently awarded two tenders totalling $312,000 to remove surface and soil asbestos at the local school, Shepardson College.
The work is underway.
Federal government relocates employee over asbestos
The National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), which implements federal programs on the island, has relocated one employee normally based in the community as a result of the report, a spokesman told the ABC.
“While there is no current public health advice in regards to asbestos in Galiwin’ku, following consultation with the individual concerned, Galiwin’ku’s Government Engagement Coordinator (GEC) is currently working from NIAA’s Nhulunbuy office while we await further advice from the Northern Territory government,” the spokesman said.
A spokeswoman from the NT government said it had not relocated any of its own staff.
She said information about asbestos risk management had been provided to staff in the Galiwin’ku community and asbestos management plans were in place.
When asked why the NIAA would relocate its staff member from the community, the NT government spokeswoman said organisations were required under law to “assess their own workplace health and safety requirements”.
“This is a matter for NIAA,” she said.
Asbestos debris worsened by cyclones: report
The NT government, East Arnhem Regional Council and the Northern Land Council funded the study by Agon Environmental after asbestos was observed in the island’s public areas during the construction of houses in Galiwin’ku in late 2018.
Agon Environmental was awarded a $5 million contract in 2019 to carry out surveys and establish asbestos management plans for the NT government over five years.
Asbestos is a known carcinogen and can cause cancer when small asbestos fibres become airborne and are inhaled, which can happen when debris containing asbestos is disturbed or breaks down over time.
Agon’s report said the identified asbestos in Galiwin’ku was “likely a result of historical poor building and demolition practices, structural fires and vandalism”.
It said asbestos was in the past spread on the island by weather events, including two serious cyclones, Lam and Nathan, which destroyed 80 homes.
More than 1,000 pieces found
Agon’s surveyors collected and tested suspected “asbestos containing materials” from several areas around the community, including on roads, verges and other public spaces.
They found 270 pieces of asbestos debris in and around a local church, 60 pieces in a park, 15 stockpiles of buried asbestos in bushland near the school and more than 250 pieces on vacant land on cliff faces near the art centre, including some larger asbestos cement sheets.
Agon’s report said that of particular concern was a large amount of asbestos found at the local tip and illegal historical dump sites that had been burnt, leaving more than 500 pieces of asbestos in “poor” condition.
It said where asbestos was in poor condition there was a greater potential for the fibres to be disturbed, posing a potential health risk.
Varied risk to the community
The consultants looked at different types of activities undertaken in the community and what the risk was of releasing asbestos fibres into the air.
The report said that mostly there was only a low risk to the community from normal recreational activity but that actions such as renovations and repair of buildings, excavation of soils and handling of asbestos waste posed higher risk.
It found that in some areas where asbestos was in the soil, recreational activities like camping, walking, playing sports or gathering, mowing or slashing of ground vegetation, could pose a “low to moderate” risk.
The report recommended conducting a community awareness program and establishing a centralised asbestos register.
It recommended a feasibility study to see whether a licensed asbestos waste facility could be developed on the island that would reduce illegal dumping, costs, and provide local employment.
The Darwin tip — a 900 kilometre barge trip away — is the closest facility that can legally accept asbestos waste.
“[This] presents a considerable constraint to the cost-efficient management of large volumes of asbestos waste,” the report said.
“The Working Group includes members of the Department of the Chief Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Infrastructure Planning and Logistics, NT Health, the East Arnhem Regional Council, the National Indigenous Australians Agency and the Northern Land Council.”
Local member calls for health survey
The independent Member for Mulka, Yingyia Mark Guyula said the report would help the community understand how to manage the risks.
“It’s concerning that in many areas of the community, activities such as sport and play, campfires, ceremonial activities and mowing are likely to create risk due to airborne asbestos dust,” he said.
Mr Guyula called for an information campaign in the local language, Yolngu Matha, and a government response that included a survey to check for any asbestos illnesses in the community.
He said similar work should be done in other Aboriginal communities that have a history of asbestos materials.
“This again highlights the ongoing issue of the movement of people away from homeland towns and into overcrowded hub towns, such as Galiwin’ku, creating many complex issues, including this environmental problem of asbestos waste and poison in highly populated areas,” he said.
When asked about the removal of the NIAA employee, Mr Guyula said the federal government had to respond to the issue “how they see best”.
“It does show that we need to act quickly and protect all community members — so that visitors and locals are looked after.
“We welcome people onto our country and we want to ensure that everyone is safe.”
© Provided by ABC Health A study into the size of Galiwin’ku’s asbestos problem was funded after asbestos was seen during housing construction in 2018. (ABC News: Duane Preston)