A loving wife and accomplished professor dying from asbestos-related cancer has pleaded for Australians to ‘wake up’ to the dangers hidden in the home renovations craze which has taken off during the pandemic.
Gillian North, 61, is in the final days of a harrowing mesothelioma fight and being cared for at home at home at Thirroul south of Sydney by her twin sister Jocelyn and her husband Martin.
They do not expect her to live to see Christmas.
Professor North is pleading with renovators to pay for professionals to remove the deadly building material, which is found in one third of homes across Australia.
‘If I can save one life by raising awareness about this deadly material and how easy it is to die from contact with it then all my work is worth it,’ she told Daily Mail Australia.
‘It is completely preventable, if only people knew.’
But she’s gone further than warning the public and has used the final months of her life to passionately push for major reforms prevent others suffering the fate she did.
Gillian North, who is dying from asbestos-related cancer has pleaded for Australians to ‘wake up’ to the dangers of the home renovations craze which has taken off during the pandemic
Dying academic Gillian North (left) with her identical twin sister, Jocelyn, a Kiwi nurse on two of their recent ‘bucket-list’ outings south of Sydney
Ms North is convinced she developed the fatal disease after being exposed to asbestos while during ‘major home renovations’ in the United Kingdom 32 years ago and in Australia 25 years ago. Her twin sister Jocelyn, a nurse, is sleeping beside her as she nears the end
A leading academic who had a career in law, accounting and at Deakin University, Ms North has written an incredible 18 research papers about asbestos dangers and reforms.
Ms North is convinced she developed the fatal disease after being exposed to asbestos while during home renovations in the United Kingdom 32 years ago and in Australia 25 years ago.
While working for a Japanese investment bank in the London, she renovated a house at Hampstead in 1990.
After she met her husband Martin in 1995 the couple moved to Sydney, where they bought a renovated a house at Cremorne.
‘I knew absolutely nothing… about the dangers of asbestos to health, took no precautions because I didn’t know,’ she said.
‘I didn’t use any professional asbestos assessments or professionals.’
Martin recalled: ‘She always wanted to do it herself. She wanted the pleasure of doing it herself and seeing it coming together.’
He said watching his wife die is ‘the most traumatic experience of my life’.
‘I feel completely out of control, I’m watching her being hollowed out from the inside,’ he said.
Gillian North and Martin North at her Hampstead, London, home in 1994. It was one of the home renovation projects she fears may have exposed her to asbestos
Gillian and Martin North at home in Thirroul, south of Sydney last year
‘She’s in more and more pain and more sleepy because of the pain medication. What she wants people to know is this should not happen to anyone.’
While Ms North admits it’s not ‘100 per cent’ certain she developed the cancer from home renovations, she said ‘nobody can be certain of their exposure’.
The asbestos reforms Gill North wants to see
- National public health campaigns to warn about the dangers of exposure to ‘legacy’ asbestos.
- Compulsory residential property asbestos assessments prior to sale, renovation, or lease.
- Legal requirements for residential property owners to have all asbestos removed by licensed professionals.
- The introduction of interest free loans (means tested) for residential property owners to support the removal of asbestos by licensed professionals.
- Urgent and firm commitments to eradicate asbestos from public, commercial and residential properties across Australia.
‘But I know of no other possible cause,’ she said.
She was diagnosed by her local GP in 2019, at 58, after developing a nagging cough.
After undergoing chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery Ms North got a two-year reprieve until X-rays showed an inoperable tumour against her spine.
She has been steadily deteriorating since mid-2021.
But even as her cancer battle progressed she put all her energy into trying to ensure others do not suffer her slow death.
She and Martin organised a survey of 40,000 Australian households, which found two-thirds of people didn’t know how dangerous it was and didn’t know what it looks like.
Any exposure to asbestos fibres or dust is widely regarded to be the main cause of mesothelioma, a cancer which attacks tissues around major organs.
The disease is regarded one of the deadliest forms of cancer, with 94 per cent of Australian sufferers dying within five years.
While asbestos was banned in 2003, it remains in place in public buildings, including schools, and houses and unit blocks.
‘The problem is certainly not over, far from it,’ Ms North said in a video recorded days before she became bedridden. ‘In fact the number of people with asbestos related diseases is actually climbing.’
Last year a record 834 people were diagnosed with the disease and 766 people died.
But the actual number of asbestos related deaths each year in Australia is believed to be over 4,000, including lung cancers and asbestosis caused by the material.
Ms North’s home at Hampstead, London during the 1990s. She did ‘major renovations’ there by herself
The exterior of Ms North’s home at Hampstead London
Mr North warned the public to find out if their homes have asbestos before they start pulling walls out so they avoid her suffering
Mr North warned the public to find out if their homes have asbestos before they start pulling walls out so they avoid her suffering.
‘We want people to wake up to the risks they’re facing,’ he said.
‘This is a long slow, fatal disease. You can breathe in a few fibres once and 30 years later you could die a horrible death.
‘This is the biggest potential risk anyone doing DIY renovations faces.’
Although the importation of asbestos has been banned for 20 years, in 2021 foreign asbestos was found in imported building materials, remote control cars, engine gaskets, billiard table irons and Sydney’s new ferries.
Gillian North is dying from mesothelioma at home surrounded by her husband and twin sister
Its fire resistant properties meant it is widely used in Chinese building products.
‘Instead of assuming there’s no asbestos in your home, assume it’s there,’ he said.
Ms North, who has wrote dozens of research papers in her 20-year academic career, went much further than warning the public.
Since being diagnosed she has written a remarkable 18 papers on asbestos countering myths she says have been supported by the industry.
These covered the industrial and building uses of asbestos, policy and legal responses to it, case studies and dangers, suggested reforms and reviewed previous papers.
‘This body of work lays the foundation for transformational change in the way asbestos is thought about spoken about legislated and communicated,’ Mr North said.
‘They will target policy makers, politicians and helping the public to understand more about the risks. You can’t leave it to policy makers and health officials invariably sweep up the problem afterwards.’
Ms North argues the risks posed by asbestos have been minimised by industry and cast as a ‘work-related illness’.
‘It’s a myth that home renovations are not a major cause of mesothelioma. In fact KPMG data suggests home renovations are now the major cause in Australia,’ Ms North said.
Ms North wants to see laws changed to force the removal of ‘legacy asbestos’ still sitting in old buildings – especially public and residential.
She claims it’s a myth that asbestos is safe as long as it’s not touched.
‘It’s not a matter of just not touching it because all asbestos … deteriorates over time. The cement roofing for example, some of it is now 50 years old. Some of the water pipes are very old, so even without disturbance, the fibres from these products can become very dangerous., even without major disturbance.’
CSR and James Hardie were the major manufacturers of asbestos products in Australia and have faced major court cases.
In 2019 South Australian man Matthew Werfel, 42, received $3.1million – the largest amount ever awarded to an Australian asbestos victim – after James Hardie was found to have failed to warn the public about risks posed by their cement products.
He inadvertently sanded asbestos sheets at his home in the mid-2000s.
Ms North called government recommendations in 2012 about asbestos management ‘very sensible’.
Its recommendations included local councils administer ‘an asbestos content report’ done by a ‘competent assessor’ for all homes built before 1987.
It also recommended asbestos be removed from all government and commercial buildings by 2030.
‘However as far as I can see there’s been no implementation of any of those key recommendations, which is deeply problematic,’ Ms North said.
Now she wants to see compulsory assessment and removal of asbestos from public buildings and houses.
Asbestos campaigners fear a ‘third-wave’ of asbestos-related deaths – where consumers unknowingly come into contact with the deadly substance – is about to unfold.
The first two waves were people exposed during manufacture of products made with asbestos, then within the construction industry.
‘Her dying wish is for people to be aware of risks of this, particularly women doing DIY. She wants to urge people to take sensible precautions and talk to licensed professionals before doing anything,’ Mr North said.
‘They are still peddling a story it’s an old man’s disease and that it’s not relevant to others. This is just not true.
‘It’s not an industrial disease any longer.’
‘She is a remarkable person… Her legacy can be that people don’t have to go through her suffering.’
Fact and fiction about asbestos
FICTION 1. The incidences of, and deaths from, asbestos-related diseases are rare. FACT: Around 4,000 people are believed to a die each year from asbestos-related illnesses
FICTION 2. The numbers of historical deaths from asbestos-related diseases are uncertain. FACT: About 145,000 people have died over last 35 years
FICTION 3. Asbestos-related diseases require (or usually involve) intense exposure over long periods. FACT: Minimal and intermittent exposure is enough.
FICTION 4. Asbestos-related diseases are solely or primarily caused by occupational exposures. FACT: This was the case but many new cases are related to home renovations.
FICTION 5. Cases of asbestos related disease today reflect historical settings that no longer exist. FACT: Public and one third residential buildings still contain asbestos.
FICTION 6. Legacy asbestos products that are bonded or encased are safe and best left in position. FACT: Asbestos become dangerous deteriorates
FICTION 7. It is safer to ‘manage’ than to remove in-situ asbestos. FACT: Asbestos is exposed by common occurrences such as renovations and natural disasters
FICTION 8. Most exposure of the general Australian population to asbestos (including the incidental exposure levels used in scientific modelling) is caused by naturally occurring asbestos. FACT: Asbestos is not ‘natural’ once mined.
FICTION 9. Public health messaging on asbestos risks should be disseminated on a limited basis, so as not to scare the community. FACT: Awareness is dangerously low
Source: Asbestos Awareness Australia