Rail sleeper thefts stoke asbestos fears

FEARS that wooden sleepers contaminated with asbestos are being stolen and used as firewood have emerged following their removal from train tracks during the upgrade of the Glen Waverley railway line.

Metro Trains has confirmed the theft of an unknown number of sleepers, and the Firewood Association of Australia said the sleepers were being used in the place of safer and more expensive firewood.

The Firewood Association has banned members from selling sleepers because they are potentially lethal when burned, said association secretary Alan McGreevy.

Metro Trains spokesman Daniel Hoare said despite security patrols some sleepers were being stolen. "Our staff and contractors patrol the railway line and work with police to try and prevent any theft of the wooden sleepers, but unfortunately some are stolen," he said.

Piles of the contaminated wooden sleepers, which belong to the Department of Transport, have been left next to train tracks along the Glen Waverley line.

Mr McGreevy said the Firewood Association began investigating the issue after getting calls from people who complained of suffering bronchitis and asthma-type symptoms after burning sleepers.

The organisation found that asbestos fibres from train brakes and brake locks, phased out in 1985, had become trapped on the sleeper's surface. "When you burn these in your fireplace, of course the asbestos isn't going to burn. It's very fireproof. It's just going to aggregate in the ash bed," Mr McGreevy said.

"You might only have half a dozen asbestos fibres there from an entire season of burning or you might have a heap in one sleeper and none in all the rest of them.

"But the problem is you now have a perfect environment for getting the asbestos airborne so you can inhale it because you know what ash out of a fireplace is like: it's very fluffy and dry.

"You only need a few fibres to create mesothelioma. You don't have to inhale a lot of it."

The sleepers have also been contaminated by weed killer, oil and grease which, when burnt can cause stinging eyes and shortness of breath.

Despite Department of Health warnings, Mr Hoare denied the asbestos link and rejected concerns that the sleepers were a danger to people's health. "The sleepers do not contain asbestos. Testing is conducted on wooden railway sleepers and while there are low-level traces of hydroflurocarbons from oils and grease associated with our rolling stock, there is no evidence to suggest any health risk associated with sleepers."

A community fact sheet issued by the Department of Health, however, warned against using sleepers as firewood because "they may also contain asbestos from train brake linings that may be released when burnt".

DEADLY FIBRE

ASBESTOS is a natural mineral that was commonly used until the 1980s to fireproof and insulate homes.

Breathing in asbestos has since been linked to lung cancer and respiratory diseases like the usually fatal mesothelioma.

There are three types of asbestos: blue, white and brown. It was originally mined in Western Australia and New South Wales and used to fireproof and insulate homes because of its strength and heat resistance. It has also been used in vehicle brake materials. 

Australia banned the use and import of blue and brown asbestos 30 years ago and white asbestos products since 2003. But while asbestos is no longer being used, homes built until the mid-1980s may still contain asbestos products. It is often found under carpets and in paint, weatherboards and plaster. 

Although it is not dangerous if left alone, asbestos once disturbed can create a dust that may be lethal if inhaled. 

A report by Safe Work Australia found that, in 2007, 660 cases of mesothelioma were diagnosed and 551 people died of the disease.

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