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Refugees living on Nauru have been exposed to potentially deadly asbestos after workers dumped it next to a settlement on the Pacific Island.
Some refugees even used the dangerous material to build makeshift sheds, intensifying fears that many could develop life-threatening cancers within years.
Large quantities of asbestos sheeting have been ripped off buildings by workers with Nauru Utilities Corporation.
But videos and photos sent to the ABC show some asbestos was never safely disposed of.
Instead, it was packed into shipping containers which were dumped only metres away from the Fly Camp settlement, where dozens of refugees live.
Leaked minutes from a meeting between Nauru's Government and Australian officials show alarm bells started ringing about the asbestos in October last year.
The documents said workers from the Brisbane construction firm Canstruct — which has been providing accommodation services to refugees on Nauru through an Australian Government contract — identified a “safety concern" when they spotted "asbestos placed at the back of Fly Camp”.
“There is a need to create awareness to our clients on the dangers of asbestos, as most of them are not aware of the danger,” the document said.
The minutes also said some of the refugees were “using the asbestos to build sheds, unaware of the dangers of using them” and that Canstruct workers had to take them down.
Iranian refugee Ellie Shakiba — who left Nauru for the United States a few weeks ago — said she saw fragments of asbestos littered all over the ground near Fly Camp, and large numbers of refugees would have been exposed.
“We haven't seen any trucks or anyone who is going to move it. [The Australian Government] knows about it, Canstruct knows about it, but nobody cares.”
Trevor Torrens from the Asbestos Disease Support Society said he could not independently verify if the material contained asbestos without testing a physical sample.
But he said the minutes and the footage from Fly Camp were “deeply concerning”.
“Having it in an open area when potentially anyone could potentially use it, pick it up [or] use it for repairs to housing — it's just a dangerous situation,” he said.
“Once you start breaking up asbestos, it starts releasing fibres. It gets into the lungs, it stays in the lungs, it develops into a tumour. It will cause mesothelioma. It will eventually kill you,” he said.
“It's a recipe for disaster. Not now, but in many years to come … It should be removed immediately.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said the asbestos "does not belong to the Department or its contracted service providers and is not related to any regional processing activities."
“The Department is aware of this matter and it has been raised with the Government of Nauru for appropriate action,” the spokesperson said.
“The Department and its service providers are working to educate residents about the dangers of the material and encourage them to keep away from it until it can be safely removed by the Government of Nauru.”
Shakiba acknowledged that Canstruct stuff had warned Fly Camp residents to stay clear of the asbestos, but said some refugees had ignored the advice.
And she accused contractors and officials from both the Australian Government and the Government of Nauru of endlessly passing the buck instead of simply removing the dangerous material.
“There is no-one … who will take care of refugees or their requests or their problems.”
Asbestos has been widely used on Nauru.
A report funded by the European Union warned that there were more than 200,000 square metres of asbestos-laden material on the island, with roofing and cladding “often 60-70 years old and in bad condition.”
In 2015 the ABC revealed that refugees and local workers on the island were removing asbestos from houses without proper protection.
Shakiba said refugees who worked to remove asbestos were almost certainly exposed to asbestos, and they should be flown to Australia immediately for health checks.
“Nobody informed them at that time that these materials are dangerous, and you should be careful while working with them,” she said.
The Government of Nauru did not respond to the ABC's calls or to a list of emailed questions.....PACNEEWS
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