School asbestos tests fast-tracked as scandal grows

Urgent testing of garden mulch is under way at seven Sydney schools as authorities reassure parents the risk of potential asbestos contamination to their children’s health is very low.

As NSW’s asbestos-tainted mulch scandal widens, environmental inspectors set foot on primary and high school campuses on Friday to test mulch that originated with manufacturer Greenlife Resource Recovery.

The school testing came as a supermarket and a second hospital were added to the growing list of NSW sites found with asbestos-tainted recycled mulch, all linked to Greenlife.

Some residential properties are also due to be tested after receiving the product from landscapers.

A major investigation continues into how pieces of bonded asbestos, mostly about the size of a coin, ended up in the commercially-sold mulch.

One piece found at Harmony Park in inner Sydney was small enough to fit up someone’s nose and therefore categorised as friable asbestos, a more dangerous substance.

But NSW Health’s message to parents was that the risk to human health remained low if asbestos was bonded and not disturbed.

“It’s important to remember that asbestos primarily causes illness when little fibres that are very small, are breathed in,” senior health official Jeremy McAnulty said on Friday.

“The risk is higher, the more you breath in over longer periods of time.”

But Dr McAnulty backed the precautionary approach of removing the material from the environment, even if the presence of bonded asbestos was not a concern.

The seven schools subject to testing range from public to private and primary to secondary, and follow the closure of Liverpool West Public School on Monday due to a positive result.

The decision to keep most schools open during the testing was defended by NSW Education Department secretary Murat Dizdar.

“Liverpool West was a clear-cut decision – that mulch was right across the school, very close to buildings – whereas at Allambie Heights it was two trees, a garden bed, easy to cordoned-off,” he told reporters.

Greenlife is the common thread between all positive detections across Sydney and Nowra, although the company denies its product was contaminated under its watch.

The company is challenging a NSW Environment Protection Authority prevention order in court, saying its testing has shown mulch stockpiled at its facility was free of asbestos contamination.

A multi-agency task force was set up on Thursday night to deal with the unfolding crisis potentially affecting hundreds of sites across the state.

It includes representatives from the NSW Asbestos Coordination Committee, Safework NSW, Local Government NSW as well as fire, health and education officials.

Since bonded asbestos was first found at the Rozelle Parklands in Sydney’s inner west in early January, the criminal investigation has grown into the largest in the EPA’s history.

The number of positive sites grew to at least 25 on Friday as positive results were reported at St John of God Richmond Hospital, Woolworths at Kellyville and a Transport for NSW park in Wiley Park.

Already, 200 sites have been tested with hundreds more expected to require inspection.

One difficulty facing authorities is Greenlife distributed its recycled mulch product to 30 companies, some of whom passed it further down the chain.

Tougher regulation of recycled products would be raised with government once the criminal investigation was completed, EPA chief executive Tony Chappell said.

“There’s a very important role for recycled materials across the economy – it’s something that over time, obviously needs to grow,” he said.

“But these materials must be safe, and that’s not negotiable.”

The Greens want the halting of asbestos-contaminated material across the state temporarily to assist contract tracers uncover where the mulch, sold throughout 2023, has ended up.

Priority testing at seven schools:

  • Allambie Heights Public School in Allambie Heights
  • International Grammar School in Ultimo
  • Mt Annan Christian College in Mt Annan
  • North Sydney Public School in North Sydney
  • Penrith Christian School in Orchard Hills
  • St Luke’s Catholic College in Marsden Park (closed Friday)
  • Westmead Christian Grammar in Westmead


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