Asbestos Contamination Multiplies at Public Sites in Sydney


Officials in Sydney, Australia, said on Sunday that they had found traces of asbestos at 34 public sites across the city in recent weeks, and that a venue for an upcoming Taylor Swift concert was declared free of the toxic mineral.

The hunt for asbestos in recycled mulch in the city began last month, and sites that have tested positive include parks and the grounds of hospitals, train stations, supermarkets and four schools, two of which have temporarily closed. The figures released by the Environmental Protection Agency of New South Wales on Sunday included two new sites, both schools.

The scandal has received international attention in part because the authorities have been testing mulch on the grounds of Sydney Olympic Park, where Ms. Swift is scheduled to perform four shows starting on Friday. But the agency said on Sunday that those tests were negative.

“I can say with certainty that the Harbor City is ready to welcome Taylor Swift with open arms,” Tony Chappel, the agency’s chief executive, told reporters on Sunday.

If inhaled, asbestos fibers can cause lung diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Laws about it vary by country: Asbestos is not banned in the United States, while the European Union banned white asbestos, the most common form, in 2005.

Australia began to phase out asbestos in the 1980s and banned it completely in 2003. But the substance had already been used for construction, automotive manufacturing and other uses for decades. Many homes that were built there before the 1990s still contain asbestos.

The authorities in New South Wales, the state that contains Sydney, have said that the asbestos found recently in recycled mulch presents a relatively small risk if undisturbed. Most of it is bonded, or nonfriable, meaning that it has been mixed with another substance like concrete and cannot be easily crumbled or turned into dust. This makes it less dangerous than friable asbestos, which can easily be crumbled and inhaled.

The asbestos was first discovered in Sydney in early January after a child brought home some mulch from the Rozelle Parklands, a new, 25-acre park. The child’s parents noticed what appeared to be asbestos in mulch and sent it for testing, which returned a positive result, Darcy Byrne, the mayor of the local district, said at the time.

The authorities shut down the park and began to test other green spaces nearby. Their discovery of more sites containing the contaminated mulch prompted them to widen the investigation across the city.

“This is completely unacceptable,” Chris Minns, the premier of New South Wales, said last week, adding that the investigation included more than 100 officials from the state E.P.A.

The agency has said that it directed the Australian company that produces the mulch, Greenlife Resource Recovery, to stop supplying it until the investigation ends.

Greenlife Resource Recovery has rejected blame. It said in a statement that testing had shown that its mulch was asbestos-free, hinting that the third parties that bought its mulch might have mixed it with other materials, or that asbestos might have already been present in some locations where contamination was found. It has taken legal action challenging the agency’s order to stop selling mulch.

The company was “at risk of being made a scapegoat for failures in a complex supply chain for construction and landscaping projects,” the statement said. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

The state E.P.A. says that businesses or individuals that allow asbestos waste to be recycled face penalties of up to two million Australian dollars, or $1.3 million. Mr. Minns, the state premier, has said that his government will look at increasing the penalties.



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