Telstra has admitted that up to one in five of its suburban communications pits contains asbestos, fuelling fears the National Broadband Network rollout could expose a big number of workers and households to the deadly fibre.
The danger led the Federal Government to call an emergency meeting yesterday with Telstra and NBN officials to discuss the threat.
It also invited asbestos advocates, union leaders and Australia's chief health officer to help co-ordinate a national response to public anxiety.
Telstra boss David Thodey conceded "hundreds of thousands" of the telco's asbestos-lined pits and ducts would need to be repaired before being ready for the NBN.
And Communications Minister Stephen Conroy admitted the widespread use of asbestos in the past threatened to further delay the already slow rollout of the $37 billion superfast internet network.
The NBN will go to households via Telstra's existing infrastructure, forcing construction workers to open old pits and ducts built decades ago, many of which have asbestos lining on the walls.
There has been an explosion in reports across the nation of poorly trained subcontractors mishandling asbestos as they lay fibre optic cables.
The NBN rollout in WA is one of the slowest of any State, with no homes connected yet.
There has been only one official investigation into the mishandling of asbestos in WA as part of the NBN build - believed to be in Victoria Park in February.
But the communications union claims many of the 300 people working on the NBN in WA could have been unwittingly exposed to fibres.
Head of the Federal workplace safety body Comcare, Paul O'Connor, has confirmed a recent spike in asbestos complaints associated with the NBN rollout.
Testifying to a Senate hearing yesterday, he said of the 30 asbestos-related issues recorded since 1996 relating to telecommunications pits, two-thirds were since January 1 and almost half were in the past six weeks.
Mr O'Connor questioned whether some workers were properly trained to deal with asbestos.
The Opposition targeted Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten amid revelations he wrote to Telstra in 2009 expressing concern about communications workers being exposed to asbestos.
Shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull questioned whether Mr Shorten had raised the issue more widely across Government as the NBN rollout ramped up. Mr Shorten said the Government would set up a task force to monitor worker and community exposure to asbestos as part of the NBN rollout.
The Government would also create an asbestos exposure register for those who feared they had been in contact with the deadly dust.
Senator Conroy said he did not expect there would be any extra cost to the NBN as a result of the asbestos scare because Telstra had responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of the pits.