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Major Asbestos Scare Lurks in Australia

Today, Australia is anxious of the possibility of Asbestos contamination following the findings of several incidents of possible asbestos contamination in Ballarat, Hobart and South Australia while developing the optic fiber cables for the National Broadband Network. Traces of asbestos in pipes and pits owned by Telstra were also discovered in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania.

Residents within the affected areas and workers at site fear for their safety. The asbestos contamination scare had spread to Queensland after three incidents were recorded by the Queensland safety regulator. Telstra extended their deep concern over the issue, says Chief Operations Officer Brendon Riley, Telstra is deeply concerned by the situation and will take every precaution necessary to strengthen Telstra’s asbestos management. Further, Telstra Chief Executive, David Thodey reassured investors that the present dilemma will not result to a material financial risk to the company.

The NBN Network project

The NBN network is a A$37.4 billion project which include the Australian government investment of A$30.4. NBN aimed to deliver super-fast broadband to service providers of up to 1,000 Mbps download and 400 Mbps upload with the use of fibre broadband connection. NBN would sell to Retail Service Providers (RSP) which would likewise provide internet access to consumers.

Fibre optics provides high quality video calls, entertainment and information over copper wire in long-distance communication and internet applications. This will surely uplift the social, educational and health services of every Australian through the internet media. The operation started with a trial rollout in Tasmania in July 2010.

The Telstra and NBN deal

The National Broadband Network Co. is a government-owned corporation which designs, builds and operates Australia’s National Broadband Network. In its desire to deliver quality communication services all throughout Australia, it entered into an $11 billion deal with Telstra Corp. Ltd. Telstra is the leading telecommunications and information services company in Australia. The project consists of underground works by replacing Teltra’s copper phone lines in underground pipes and pits to house NBN’s fibre-optic cables.

Under the 10 year contract, Telstra will fix wireless and satellite network for NBN aimed at providing high-speed broadband available to all Australian homes and businesses. For this purpose, NBN leases the existing pits and ducts from Telstra for its cable rollout. The project is set to finish within 10 years and fully operational by June 2021. The fibre to the premises (FTTP) rollout is expected to pass through 3.5 million homes and businesses by 2015.

It is further agreed under the multibillion-dollar agreement that Telstra will move its existing consumers to NBN. The company will also repair old infrastructures remediation” before the fibre-optic lines will be installed. This will include the process of removing asbestos from Telstra pits and ducts all over the Australia.

The hazards of asbestos contamination

The problem with asbestos arises when the fibers become airborne and are inhaled. The microscopic fibers are sharp and can penetrate into the body tissues. The inability of the lungs to expel these fibers will cause serious harm to the lungs and some body organs that typically manifests only years after exposure. The known asbestos related risks include the following:

Asbestosis – a scarring of the lung tissue caused by accumulated asbestos fibres. The body will produce acid in an attempt to dissolve the fibers. The scarring may eventually become serious that will impair the lungs and eventually stop to function. The disease will develop around 10 to 20 years from contamination.

Mesothelioma. a disease of the mesothelial lining of the lungs and the chest cavity, the peritoneum (abdominal cavity) or the pericardium (a sac surrounding the heart) which is developed through exposure to asbestos. The disease will develop around 20 to 50 years from contamination. Most patients die within 12 to 18 months of diagnosis.

Cancer. A cancer disease that could develop in gastrointestinal tract, kidney and larynx linked to asbestos exposure. The latency period usually occur within 15 to 30 years.

Pleural disease. This is an Inflammation and irritation of the outer lining of the lung, the pleura. The stiffening and thickening of the pleura (diffuse thickening) or the formation of plaques can be filled with fluid and restricts breathing.

Who takes responsibility?

The recent discovery of asbestos in pipes and pits owned by Telstra will have great impact on the ongoing NBN project. Australia has confirmed that Telstra could face penalties if it delays the rollout of the $37.4 billion project. A spokeswoman of Telstra said, “Telstra must meet timetable and fitness standards for providing access to its infrastructure for NBN Co. “If we don’t meet these obligations, penalties may be imposed.

The NBN Co. has also put penalties for delays into its construction contracts. However, according to McNamara & Associates, Peter Wilkinson, the commonwealth and its workers compensation scheme, Comcare, could face liability.

At a political level, the Labor Party is blaming Telstra for the breaches, while the Coalition passes blame to the government and the NBN Co. for endangering public health. For this project, NBN had already deployed contractors to around eight million pits owned by Telstra that contain about 10 to 20 per cent asbestos.