I was informed of concerning news last night about asbestos identified in a number of Northern Territory communities.
The Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) has informed me that in late August 2007 tradespeople raised concerns about the presence of asbestos containing material in the houses they were working on.
FaHCSIA contracted asbestos and environmental health specialists AEC Environmental Pty Ltd in October 2007 and McMahon Services in January 2008 to conduct surveys across all Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) communities.
FaHCSIA has advised that asbestos has been identified in 45 out of the 50 remote communities surveyed to date. Testing in the remaining 23 communities is expected to be completed by the end of July 2008.
These companies have advised FaHCSIA that none of the material identified so far presents an immediate risk to health.
Around 26,000 people live in the 73 communities in the Northern Territory.
I understand that communities will be very concerned about these developments and I am taking immediate action to ensure that communities are not exposed to asbestos health risks.
The Australian Government will remove all asbestos contaminated material in the 73 NTER communities identified as a potential high risk (requiring removal within 12 months) by the asbestos and environmental health specialists.
The health and safety of community members and Commonwealth staff is my top priority.
Even though FaHCSIA has been advised that there are minimal health risks, I am seeking further advice on any possible health risks.
I have sought urgent advice from the Chief Medical Officer for the Australian Government on the level of risk indicated by the surveys.
FaHCSIA has also contracted environmental health agency Bureau Veritas to immediately undertake sample testing of airborne fibre levels in three communities.
I am concerned that this matter was not brought to my attention sooner. I have spoken to my Secretary, Dr Jeff Harmer and he has asked Tony Blunn, who is investigating the Department's response to the issue of formaldehyde in NTER accommodation containers, to extend his scrutiny to this matter, including departmental communication on issues of safety such as this.
FaHCSIA will be keeping communities and other affected people regularly informed of all developments.
This is a very difficult time for community members and NTER staff and I want to assure them that we will be taking every possible measure to protect their health and safety.
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