Asbestos cancer strikes retired principal

All primary schools must be free of asbestos hazards, says a retired Wellington principal who has the incurable cancer mesothelioma. Older teachers need to be aware that they may have…

All primary schools must be free of asbestos hazards, says a retired Wellington principal who has the incurable cancer mesothelioma.

Older teachers need to be aware that they may have been exposed to asbestos fibres, says Peter Kohing, who adds, “I loved teaching.” During his long career, he inhaled asbestos dust at least twice. He says that one of the Wellington schools where he worked still has asbestos guttering.


Retired Wellington principal Peter Kohing about to receive radiotherapy

From the1930s to the 1970s, asbestos was widely used in New Zealand in building and engineering products, often mixed with cement. As the cement ages, it breaks down, and asbestos fibres are released. Even though the health dangers of asbestos were widely known from at least the 1960s, it wasn’t until 1991 that imports of crude asbestos into New Zealand were halted.

Asbestos is implicated in a number of cancers, particularly of the lungs and pleural linings, but also of the digestive tract. But these cancers can be hard to diagnose.

Eight years into retirement in January 2008, Peter was enjoying life. A former president of Wellington’s Chinese Sports and Cultural Centre, he was on the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee regarding the Chinese community. He was writing Cantonese resources for a new tri-lingual early childhood centre, and had just signed up for Mandarin classes.

The only blight was a pain in the top of his right lung. Five X-rays, three biopsies and 18 months later, he received the diagnosis. “My wife, Audrey, was with me and she broke down. Then she asked,˜How long has Peter got?’. “I think it’s a standard answer” the doctor said probably 12 months. Well my 12 months will be up in July. And I’m going to prove him wrong.”

The doctor told Peter to apply to ACC to have his condition acknowledged as work-related exposure to asbestos. This would give Peter access to new drugs, which can stabilise the condition, but cost up to $200,000 and are not funded by Pharmac.

However, ACC required documentation of exposure. Peter called the Ministry of Education” and he is still waiting for a response to the call he made last year.

However, NZEI’s information manager, Sharon Jones, was able to track down Peter’s school records to some cardboard boxes lodged at National Archives. He clearly remembers what happened at this Wellington school in the early 1980s. “They came to remove the corrugated asbestos roofing in February. Within an hour of these contractors arriving on site, the principal called me into the office and said,˜Peter, you’re on playground duty. Look out the window.’

“These guys were stripping off the asbestos roofing and throwing it down into the trucks and dumper bin. There was dust blowing around all over the place. Every morning I would do a circuit to make sure the windows were closed.

“Even when the windows were closed, the cleaners were cleaning the dust off the ledges inside the classes. It was still coming through the cracks.”

Peter’s other exposure occurred at his first teaching job at a small timber mill school on the Napier-Taupo highway. For a while it was Peter’s job to start the generator in a dusty room full of asbestos-lagged hot water pipes. “It took me eight minutes to get the fly wheel up to speed – and at the end I’d be breathing hard.”

With documentation, ACC has accepted Peter’s claim, and he is entitled to home help, a hospital bed, and minor alterations to his home, and has been offered a modest lump sum payment. He takes morphine for pain, and has undergone several rounds of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Just who succumbs to asbestos-related disease is something of a lottery. A group of Peter’s friends and former colleagues have set up a Committee of Concern to support Peter, and which has been working with NZEI.

“You might inhale asbestos and it might not affect you. Your body expels it,” says NZEI executive officer Brian Bell, a former principal who met Peter as a teenager at Wellington Technical College (now Wellington High) before following him to Teachers’ College. “But with some kinds of asbestos, it just takes one or two fibres to be embedded, and it causes cancer.” Latency between exposure and disease can be anything from 10 to fifty years.

It’s estimated that up to 40 percent of New Zealand men will have been exposed to asbestos at sometime in their lives.

An epidemic of related cancers is creeping through the population, with an estimated 1-200 deaths a year. This figure is expected to peak around 2016, and by 2020 at least 3000 New Zealanders will have had their lives shortened by asbestos-related diseases.

However, Brian says that many cases of asbestos-related illness aren’t diagnosed. “If you’ve been a smoker it’s unlikely it’ll be picked up. It’ll be called emphysema or pleurisy.”

Mesothelioma has the same characteristics as pleurisy and often doctors cannot distinguish between the two unless a surgical biopsy has been carried out.

The two main suppliers of asbestos in New Zealand, Fletchers and James Hardie, have so far avoided liability here for having knowingly supplied a hazardous product.

Under current health and safety legislation, schools must provide a safe environment. Another Committee of Concern member, Bob Waters, was horrified by one case from the 1990s that he discovered on the Internet. A school in Coromandel had been collecting drinking water from a corrugated asbestos roof. The Ministry of Education had posted it as an example of a Board of Trustees of a rural school working cooperatively with the ministry to replace asbestos roofing. The chair of the board commented that they’d know if the project had been a success, “if the water tastes as good as it used to”.

“It means they had been drinking water collected off an old asbestos roof!” Bob is aware of schools operating today where asbestos still hasn’t been properly contained.

“All schools built before the mid 1980s need to check there is no exposed asbestos. Painting asbestos does contain it, but paint will wear off.”

He says that if boards have any concerns at all, they need to seek expert advice.

In response to questions from NZEI, the Ministry of Education’s Group Manager Property, Paul Burke responded said, “Financial support is available to schools to remove hazards including asbestos.”
Teachers who have been exposed can register on the Department of Labour’s Asbestos Exposure Register, which will give them access to medical information.

They should also report exposure to their local regional council, to have it recorded on the Selected Land Use Register. This will help others seeking evidence of exposure to make claims to ACC.

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