AIOH President Statement – Asbestos in Mulch

Sydney finds itself in the midst of an unfolding public health issue stemming from the detection of asbestos in mulch across various public locations. This discovery has disrupted numerous activities and has caused concern to the community.

The issue has drawn major media attention and escalated rapidly. NSW’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) have identified over 40 locations where non-friable asbestos has been detected, while friable asbestos has been detection at one location. The EPA state that they are testing mulch from a variety of sites, including schools and parks around Sydney for asbestos contamination. The EPA has advised schools remaining open to keep students and staff away from garden beds where the mulch is located. NSW Health advises that the non-friable (bonded) asbestos, which has been found in mulch at sites in Sydney, poses low community risk to health. The experts are in agreement that the risk to health from bonded asbestos is extremely low.

Public discussions on this matter have featured renowned occupational hygienists, Andrew Orfanos and Linda Apthorpe. Andrew (ABC News) and Linda (7:30 Report) provided professional and measured commentary explaining the relative risks of friable and non-friable asbestos materials, and perceived versus real risk. Linda walked the viewers through the mulch testing procedure and was followed by Professor Bernard Stewart, an expert on environmental carcinogens, who indicated the mulch related risk was “astonishingly small”.

Asbestos risk assessment is routinely carried out by occupational hygienists, verified by monitoring according to well established measurement methods and exposure standards.  So far, no data on airborne fibre levels have emerged in press releases from NSW Health or the EPA.  AIOH members stand ready to assist the authorities with properly conducted representative monitoring for airborne asbestos fibre to inform risk assessments and control and remediation plans.

Asbestos, understandably, is a highly emotive issue that can quickly escalate and cause public alarm. It is important that we communicate health risks effectively, to address and allay public concern.  Monitoring data is a critical part of this communication process.  Last year the AIOH contributed to the Guides for communicating about asbestos risk published by the Asbestos and Silica Safety and Eradication Agency. I encourage all of our members to review that information to support effective communication about this important issue.

I extend my gratitude to the many AIOH members whose expertise has been pivotal in aiding the public health response and encourage members of the community who have concerns on this issue to engage with professional occupational hygienists experienced with asbestos management. Access to expert guidance and support can be found here.

For further information on the ongoing NSW EPA’s asbestos investigation, or to express concerns about the issue of recycled mulch click here.