The chances of New Zealanders still being exposed to asbestos have diminished. thanks mainly to progressive legislative changes since the year 2000.

The Environmental Protection Authority banned the importation of any materials containing asbestos in October 2016. 

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But construction materials, by far the biggest user of asbestos, because of the fibres’ heat resistance, insulation and strength properties, were banned from using any asbestos content in the year 2000.

A paper produced by three academics, William Glass, Rob Armstrong and Grace Chen, was titled “Banning Asbestos in New Zealand, 1936-2016, an 80-Year Long Saga,” and recorded the history of the use of asbestos and how New Zealand society gradually changed its attitude in the decades between 1936 and 2016.

The banning by the New Zealand Government of the import and export of asbestos-containing products resulted from the interplay of a number of factors.

“At a personal level, there were the actions of the asbestos sufferers, their families and support groups.

“At the political level, there were the activities of progressive trade union groups representing the hazardous trades, such as labourers, construction workers and demolition workers, and at a Government level, there was a positive response to these public health pressures.

“The Prohibition Order 2016 concerning Imports and Exports (asbestos-containing products) was the outcome of this 80-year long saga.”

A spokesman for Chemcare, a licensed asbestos removal company which operates nationally, said the chances of being exposed to asbestos though a small retail product or some other product outside the construction industry would be “plain unlucky.”

“I would be surprised, with regulation changes and growing awareness of the dangers, if there were any asbestos products other than those contained within buildings and other structures,” he said.

Johnson and Johnson’s asbestos issue

International publicity in 2018, however, caught local attention when Johnson and Johnson’s famous talc powder was alleged to contain asbestos.

Alex Gorsky, Chairman and CEO of Johnson and Johnson, fronted World media to defend the safety of his company’s product as billions in value disappeared from company stock.

“That’s demonstrated in thousands of studies, not only conducted by Johnson and Johnson, but studies conducted by well-respected authorities,” he said, referring to the absence of asbestos.

Gorsky cited Harvard Medical School and other organisations that have studied “nearly 100,000 patients involving both men and women over decades.”

Johnson and Johnson’s problems were partly the result of talcum powder and asbestos originating from similar mining origins.

How NZers are still exposed to asbestos today

The dangers today, for New Zealanders, can be confined to buildings or various civil types of construction such as underground pipes. There are no reliable records of how much construction material remains with asbestos but a Chemcare resource said from the company’s inquiries among major local authorities of New Zealand, it could be millions of tonnes. 

Exterior claddings, soffits, underground plumbing pipes, “woolly” insulation around pipes, roofing tiles, some interior claddings comprise some of the asbestos-containing products that are still enduring well in buildings around the country.

In April 2018, a regulation came into effect, requiring all non residential building owners to have an “asbestos management plan” for all buildings. This regulation also applies to rented residential properties.

The regulation takes into account that building materials containing asbestos can be safe while the fibres are compacted and undisturbed by work such as drilling, hammering or other forms of disruption which might release the fibres into the atmosphere.

This is the time when inhalation might happen and start a course of illness which will eventually be fatal.

An asbestos management plan identifies all materials within a building which are potentially hazardous so maintenance work over future years can be carried out with adequate caution until the asbestos materials themselves, are totally replaced.

Government regulations, according to Chemcare, appear to be structured to allow building owners time to address asbestos content. An asbestos management plan is an effective safety plan to ensure the asbestos material remain “non-friable,” or tightly contained and not released accidentally into the atmosphere.