Sydney's asbestos problem spirals as MP calls for 'contact tracing'

Already 200 sites have been tested with hundreds more expected to require inspection in the coming weeks.

A photo captured by a member of the public has struck a chord online, highlighting the bizarre and ominous nature of Sydney's worsening asbestos problem as fears grow that more sites across the city contain potentially contaminated mulch.

The photo posted online on Friday afternoon shows workers in hazmat suits combing through the Rozelle Parklands, near where asbestos laced mulch was first discovered more than a month ago.

"Literally dystopic," the person captioned the image, commenting on the eerie visual. "Reminds me of the Covid cleaners in the early stages of the pandemic," one person agreed.

Hazmat workers pictured in Rozzelle Parklands after latest asbestos scares.
Workers in hazmat suits seen in Sydney brought back pandemic memories for some in the city. Source: Reddit

Hundreds of sites still to be tested

Weeks after the initial discovery, there are now hundreds of sites authorities are concerned about, including schools, a hospital, a supermarket and even private gardens where the harmful mulch could be hiding.

Seven Sydney schools were identified as having received mulch from a problem manufacturer – Greenlife Resource Recovery – that supplied the garden product to the other 25 contaminated sites, the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) said.

All but one of the seven schools identified remained open On Friday while samples were taken of the mulch, however St Luke’s Catholic College in Marsden Park closed its doors due to the asbestos concerns.

"Those that remain open are advised to keep students and staff away from garden beds in and around the school sites, and to expect to see EPA officers on the ground throughout the day," the EPA said.

The school testing was precautionary and no asbestos contamination had yet been identified, the environment regulator told parents.

St Luke's Catholic College at Marsden Park closed over the asbestos fears. Source: AAP
St Luke's Catholic College at Marsden Park closed over the asbestos fears. Source: AAP

Greenlife is the common thread between all positive detections across Sydney and Nowra, though the company denies its product was contaminated under its watch.

On Thursday, the state government convened a multi-agency taskforce to coordinate the mounting problem. It includes representatives from the NSW Asbestos Coordination Committee, Safework NSW, Local Government NSW as well as fire, health and education officials.

Woolworths store and hospital among sites to test positive

Since bonded asbestos was first found at the Rozelle Parklands in Sydney's inner west in early January, the EPA's criminal investigation has grown into the largest in its history.

The number of positive sites grew from 22 on Friday with positive results reported at St John of God Hospital in Richmond, Woolworths at Kellyville and a Transport for NSW park in Wiley Park.

The mulch at Woolworths at Kellyville Grove has tested positive. Source: AAP
The mulch at Woolworths at Kellyville Grove has tested positive. Source: AAP

All landowners have been advised to put in place measures to prevent public access and begin removal of the contaminated mulch, the EPA said.

Already 200 sites have been tested with hundreds more expected to require inspection.

City of Sydney started taping off and testing garden beds in 38 locations on Friday morning. Testing will also occur in another 33 parks where contaminated mulch may have been used, in a process expected to take several weeks.

MP calls for 'contact tracing'

In echoes of the Covid pandemic, NSW Greens MP and Environment spokeswoman Sue Higginson calling for authorities to trace the contaminated materials, saying the multi-agency task force and regulator will be overwhelmed by the continued movement of asbestos-contaminated material across the state unless a temporary suspension is put in place.

"When contact tracing was introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the government rightly instituted restrictions on movement to avoid the crisis from growing out of control," she said in a statement on Thursday.

"We need the government to take a stand and limit the movement of materials, that are likely contaminated with asbestos, so that contact tracing can do its job and resolve the failed regulation and corrupted supply chain."

Could the asbestos mulch really make me sick?

According to Professor Fraser Brims, from the Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin Medical School, there is exceedingly little chance members of the public will get seriously ill from contact with the contaminated mulch.

"Asbestos is only a health concern when it is broken up into a dust and while any exposure to this should be avoided, the risk to health of a one-off exposure from one of these contaminated sites, whilst undesirable, is exceptionally low," he said.

In fact, it's so low we can't measure it.

"If someone has been exposed, it is vital to avoid tobacco and e-cigarettes or vaping as these products stop the lungs clearing out any inhaled dust, and are far more harmful to our lungs," he added.

with AAP

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