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Asbestos hazards clear to all in Hardie scandal

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In addition to the core roles in balancing design, structural and economic considerations, there is increasing expectation placed on architects as specifiers to address a range of moral and ethical issues. Along with avoiding rainforest timbers and incorporating greenhouse responsibility, there is now another dilemma to juggle: the ethics of materials suppliers.

As a regular antipodean reader of the AJ, I've noticed recent large advertisements for James Hardie Building Products. Readers may be interested in a major scandal that is currently gaining mainstream press and political attention in Australia.

James Hardie has a long history in Australia producing a range of building products, most prominently fibre cement sheeting - in Australian vernacular, 'fibro'. This was a simple, cheap material used in millions of Australian homes, sheds and commercial buildings. The versatile flat wall sheeting and corrugated roofing panels are probably found in almost all buildings in the country, to a greater or lesser degree.

The problem is, until the 1980s 'fibro' was also known as AC sheeting - for 'asbestos cement'. Locked in the brittle, dimpled sheets are tufts of asbestos that can be released when broken, sawn or sanded.

Exposure is recognised as having the potential to result in the lingering fatal lung disease mesothelioma, which can manifest decades later. A recent compensation case involved a woman who recalled her only source of contact was jumping on a pile of demolished sheets as a child.

After paying compensation to ill ex-workers from its notorious Wittenoom asbestos mine in Western Australia, Hardie publicly committed to compensating victims affected by its products.

However, in 2001 the company shifted its headquarters to the Netherlands in what is now recognised as an action designed to restrict ongoing compensation payments. The parent company separated itself from its asbestos subsidiaries, announcing with great fanfare to the public and regulators a foundation to pay all future victims fully. It is now apparent that this foundation was grossly under-funded to the tune of about AUS$2 billion (£800 million), with its reserves predicted to run out early in 2007. Claims are expected to emerge for decades.

Actions of the company have recently been subject to a special commission of inquiry established by the New South Wales government. The consequent Jackson report, released on 20 September, severely criticises the company's 'deceit' and recommends criminal prosecution for knowingly misleading the public and stock exchange, but offers few prospects for the abandoned current and future victims. However, the consequent attention has resulted in the company making conciliatory promises to a sceptical public and governments. Remarkably, both major political parties have declared they will pass the company's campaign donations on to victims.

It seems that the only message getting through to this corporation is public pressure and consumer withdrawal.

With the company now focusing on the European market, the widespread indignation in Australia may be a cost it is ready to write off. The just resolution of this matter may require wider awareness of this company's dubious ethics among consumers and specifiers in its new markets.

And before someone asks the question, no, I do not have any vested interest in this issue, aside from the sense of moral indignation shared by millions of Australians, along with a lingering awareness (probably also shared with millions) of working around these products for years prior to warnings about their hazards.

Rod Duncan, Geelong, Australia

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