Work has begun on demolishing a block of units opposite the Beach Hotel at the top of Jonson Street, Byron Bay including the removal of asbestos.
But shopkeepers in the busy retail area of town are alarmed at the potential for drift of the potentially lethal fibres due to high winds and what they claim are inadequate precautions.
The units on the corner of Jonson St, across the road from the pub and the pool, are owned by the Van Haandel syndicate which owns the Beach Hotel.
According to Bill Lowrie of East Coast Asbestos Removals, the building is, ‘riddled with asbestos; internal, external, ceilings, roof, the lot,’ and is in ‘an exposed location’.
Work began last week when East Coast demolished a shed which Mr Lowrie believed was the biggest health hazard, backing directly onto the shops opposite the Beach Hotel.
Victor Gonzalez, owner of Tasa Jara at the top of Jonson Street, says he is extremely concerned about the possibility of asbestos fibres drifting into his shop and in fact all over town.
‘They’re taking asbestos off the walls, the sheets are breaking up, and it’s always windy up here,’ he says.
Asbestos fibres, if lodged in the lungs, can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Shopkeeper closes shop
Mr Gonzalez has closed his shop, saying, ‘I can’t send my wife or my staff there’.
However, Mr Lowrie says that he is doing everything in his power to minimise the risks. ‘This is bonded asbestos, which means it’s between 15 and 20 per cent of the total content of the material, and is bonded into the cement.’
He acknowledges that fibres escape when sheets are broken up but says that bonded asbestos is far less dangerous than the friable asbestos found in pipe lagging or in buildings after a fire, where fibres escape freely.
According to Mr Lowrie, both Byron Shire Council and Workcover have conducted an on-site inspection and are satisfied that he is following all relevant standards and procedures.
This includes providing dust masks and disposable body suits to staff and installing a mesh perimeter fence.
‘It’s not a legislative requirement, but I’ve also installed an irrigation system – a set of misters all around the fence designed to wet down any dust before it leaves the site.’
Irrigation system installed
A second mesh-covered scaffold will be installed when work commences on the outside of the building. Mr Lowrie has also sought and obtained Council permission to work outside of normal hours.
‘It’s a difficult, unpleasant job, and we’re trying to get it done as quickly and safely as possible,’ he says, ‘but we’re going to wait for the wind to drop before we remove the roof’.
Mr Gonzalez says, however, ‘If this job complies with the regulations, then they’re not strict enough.
‘That entire site should be sealed off completely. Everyone keeps telling me it’s okay but then I invite them to come sit on the bench in front of my shop for two hours and they say, “Oh no…”.’
Mr Lowrie countered, ‘I understand that people are worried about asbestos removal, but the fact is that all these buildings are slowly weathering, and as they do, asbestos fibres are released to the air.
‘Removal is the lesser of two evils. Mr Gonzalez has every right to close his shop if he feels he is at risk while work is being conducted, but he should be thanking me because in a few weeks that asbestos hazard will be gone.’
It is believed that one in three buildings built before 1980 contain asbestos products.
The Asbestos Information and Support Service (www.aiss.org.au) urges homeowners to be extremely cautious, citing dramatic rises in cases of malignant mesothelioma amongst renovators.
In 2008, home renovations were responsible for 35 per cent of all non-commercially related incidences of the disease amongst women.