Friday, July 1, 2022

Hidden health hazard needs care

Asbestos in cow dairies may be hazardous for farmers and workers exposed to it, but both Fonterra and the Food Safety Authority (FSA) believe it raises no food safety issues.

Asbestos would be a problem only during demolition or while alterations were being made. DairyNZ said farmers who know they have asbestos in their dairies should consult the Department of Labour for advice on how to establish if staff are at risk. The department’s website includes information that asbestos may still be found in a range of different settings, such as ceilings and flooring, but the range of products containing asbestos “has significantly reduced” in New Zealand.

“It is important to confirm if asbestos is present in the work environment, so that the necessary controls are put in place to minimise harm to workers and those in the vicinity of the work.”

It regards asbestos as a serious health threat to people who are exposed to it. Employers are required under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 “to take all practicable steps to monitor employees’ exposure to minimised hazards”, including hazards like asbestos dust that cannot be eliminated from the workplace or isolated from employees.

Asbestos monitoring is one way of achieving this.

In Taranaki several dairies are known to have asbestos on their roofs, which has concerned some local farmers as the milk is supplied to Fonterra. They pointed out that their dairies were regularly inspected but dairies with asbestos had passed the tough test.

Fonterra and DairyNZ said they kept no data to show how many dairies might have asbestos products in their construction. But a Fonterra spokesman said he had consulted the company’s food safety guide and had been assured “there is no issue”. Asbestos would be a problem only during demolition “and the farmer wouldn’t be running a dairy at that point”.

John Reeve, principal advisor toxicology at the FSA, said there would be a risk for anybody demolishing or making alterations to old farm dairies that had asbestos. But “there would not be any likelihood of a risk to consumers of milk that has been obtained in those dairies”.

The carcinogenic risk of exposure to asbestos was about inhalational exposure, Reeve said.

“Good epidemiology data shows that the main risks to humans are to those in occupations where asbestos dust can get into the air, and the exposures are both long-term and high,” he said.

There had been many studies on the risks of asbestos in drinking water, because many water main pipes had been made from concrete in which asbestos was often added. Some studies indicated an unclear link, but “by far the majority of it supports the expert view that ingestion of asbestos does not pose a risk of cancer in humans”.

Milk was harvested within a closed system from the animal through to milk vat “and is not directly exposed to environmental particulates”.

Mark Paine, DairyNZ’s strategy investment leader, people and business, said his organisation did not monitor asbestos in dairies. That was the responsibility of the Department of Labour in terms of workplace health and safety.  

DairyNZ had no information on the extent to which dairies might have asbestos.

“It has never come up in our interactions with farmers either in terms of workplace health and safety risks,” Paine said.

If farmers were aware of asbestos in their sheds, DairyNZ suggested they talk to the Department of Labour for advice on how to establish if staff are at risk. If they needed to take action they should get further professional advice. The process to follow is at

In terms of milk supply, Paine said, “that would be for Fonterra to comment, not us”.

Federated Farmers suggested contacting two builders involved in farm building construction, but neither could recall problems with asbestos in dairies.

The Labour Department website says the majority of products containing asbestos are likely to be found in the building industry. Demolition contractors particularly may encounter asbestos in working atmospheres, especially if involved in the demolition of structures built before 1980.

Several Workplace Exposure Standards (WES) have been designed for people exposed to substances over various time periods. With asbestos, the average amount of asbestos a person may be exposed to over a certain period of time is considered.

When monitoring shows levels of asbestos fibres in the air exceeding the WES, “all practicable steps must be taken to eliminate, isolate or minimise airborne asbestos fibres to the workers”.

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