Government officials in New Zealand have ordered the demolition of more than a hundred abandoned homes laden with asbestos. The homes were constructed in the mid-1900s on the South Pacific island of Niue, which is an “associated state” under the control of New Zealand. Environmental agencies in Wellington, along with the Niue Health Ministry, have long sought to tear down the houses as part of a plan to expand tourism to the island to compete with neighbors such as Tonga and Samoa.
Ms. O’Love Jacobsen, the Health Minister for Niue, said that the project to demolish the structures should be completed by September. She also said that the New Zealand government would pay just over US$250,000 to tear down the empty homes and relocate the debris to a safe disposal site. The project will also include removing a stockpile of asbestos near the island’s lone airport. The asbestos-laced debris came off the airport’s roof during a 2004 cyclone.
Despite its well-intentioned nature, the plan is not without its critics. Although some of the homes have been abandoned for several years, some property owners have complained about the government overstepping its bounds. Mr. Taha Fasi, a businessman from Auckland, New Zealand, owns two of the houses targeted for demolition. He said that the government does not have the right to tear down anything on his property without his permission. Since the homes are on private land, he said that the homeowners should have the right to sue the government for compensation.
In a recent interview with Radio Australia, Ms. Jacobsen stressed that workers who handle asbestos-containing materials, both at the demolition sites and at the airport, will use protective coveralls and special breathing masks to prevent exposure to the toxic dust. Workers will also keep any asbestos-laced debris in special airtight containers and wet down any loose fibers to prevent them from becoming airborne.
Ms. Jacobsen also mentioned that some of the homeowners have neglected the asbestos problems in the Niue properties for as long as the last fifteen years. She said that she has consulted with officials in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch on how to notify the homeowners and proceed with the demolition projects. In her interview, she dismissed the allegations by homeowners that they were not aware of the problems. She said that the government had to step in for safety reasons since the homeowners were either slow or unresponsive to the issue.
Like their Australian neighbors, New Zealand has strict guidelines for insuring both worker safety and environmental quality during an asbestos remediation project. The regulations help to prevent inadvertent exposure to asbestos, which can occur when loose fibers float through the air. The microscopic fibers can pass through lung tissue when inhaled and embed themselves into the pleural mesothelium, a band of soft tissue that supports and surrounds the lungs.
Workers who inhale the fibers can develop pleural mesothelioma, an aggressive and deadly form of cancer. Although mesothelioma patients may not display symptoms for several years after their initial exposure, the disease can severely affect their lung function. Patients diagnosed with mesothelioma seldom live more than eighteen months.
Sources: Radio Australia, Australian Network News