NORMA Ryan was “shellshocked” when she found she had mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, as a result of coming into contact with asbestos 65 years ago.
As a nine-year-old girl, she remembers playing with asbestos – a fibrous silicate mineral, widely used in building materials until the 1980s – while her father renovated the family home.
“My brother and I picked up a piece and accidentally broke it,” Mrs Ryan, now 74, said.
Unknown to so many people at the time, exposure to deadly asbestos fibres can often be fatal.
Mrs Ryan was again exposed to asbestos as a teenager during further household renovations and later again as an adult.
“When we bought our first home, some time during the ’60s, I decided to rub down an asbestos fence to prepare it for painting, which is the worst thing you can do,” she said.
“I wasn’t educated about asbestos back then, but I certainly am now and I want to educate others.”
Up until January this year, Mrs Ryan was completely unaware she was in danger of developing an asbestos-related illness, assuming only tradesmen or former asbestos miners were at risk.
“My brother-in-law was a carpenter who had worked with asbestos and was later diagnosed with mesothelioma,” she said.
“I thought it was due to the high exposure of asbestos through his work.”
It wasn’t until Mrs Ryan went to see her doctor after her breathing become laboured that the reality of even slight exposure to asbestos revealed itself.
“I saw a thoracic surgeon and ended up having two litres of water drained from my lungs,” Mrs Ryan said.
“A week later, he rang me while I was home alone and told me I had mesothelioma.”
Mrs Ryan and her husband, John, made an appointment with oncologist Alex Powell, who told her he could promise her months – but not years – if she underwent chemotherapy treatment.
The chemotherapy has so far shrunk a tumour in Mrs Ryan’s lung, leading it to stay dormant for the time being.
She is now determined to make people aware of how deadly asbestos can be.
“There is still a lot of people who still don’t understand,” she said.
“People were asking me if I had mesothelioma, because I smoked, which I never did. They just didn’t realise you could get it through exposure to asbestos.
“My five siblings were all exposed like me. It really is a lottery.”
Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia president Robert Vojakovic said people were playing Russian roulette with their lives if they chose to renovate their homes without getting it checked for asbestos first.
“It normally takes about 40 years to manifest itself,” Mr Vojakovic said.
“Even slight exposure through a neighbour pulling down an asbestos fence can cause asbestos related illness.”
Did you know?
- Australia was the world’s largest user
of asbestos (per capita) and as a result
has one if the highest incidence rates of
mesothelioma in the world, with 4 million
residents affected by it.
- Asbestos cement products were
common in WA from 1921 to 1987.
- Exercise extreme caution when
renovating homes built before 1987.
- Asbestos may be present in exterior
walls, internal walls (especially in wet
areas), fencing, roofing, shingles and
siding, eaves, backing material on floor
tiles and vinyl flooring, and water or flue
- Further information on asbestos
removal, visit www.asbestosinfo.com.