Asbestos spread through their share house, but these women had to fight for months to get compensation – ABC Online

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It’s a tenant’s worst nightmare; after complaining for more than six months about a leaking tap in their bathroom shower, Ella Gleeson and Morgan Russell finally had a plumber turn up.

But it was no simple fix. The repair job wound up exposing them to potentially deadly asbestos-laden dust for a week.

It was the beginning of a four-month battle to get compensation, and a stark reminder of huge gaps in the law in some states when it comes to protecting tenants from potentially hazardous risks.

The 26-year-ancient students didn’t suspect anything when the plumber finished his work on April 20.

The hole in the bathroom wall at Ella Gleeson and Morgana Russell's Preston share house.

“I just assumed he knew what he was doing,” Ms Gleeson said.

“When he was finished, the hole he had cut in the tiles above the bathtub was still there.

“He was like, ‘that’s for the handyman to fix’. There was just a giant hole in the wall. There was dust everywhere.”

Ms Russell added: “I saw a hole in our shower wall. I saw dust all over.”

They waited — but no handyman came to seal up the wall. After three days, they chose to clean up the mess.

“The dust just spread around the house,” Ms Gleeson said.

On the fourth day her brother, a carpenter, visited.

“I showed him and his face dropped. ‘That’s asbestos’. So then we just panicked,” Ms Gleeson said.

Asbestos confirmed, but clearance certificate later issued

The women say they were initially dismissed by the property manager. The manager denies that.

But all agree it took a further 48 hours for a test for asbestos to be carried out.

An asbestos warning sign hangs on the door of a house.

The results were what they feared: asbestos.

The women were told not to re-enter the house and removalists were called in.

“The house was locked down, [there was] tape over it saying ‘asbestos, do not enter’. Bags of our stuff were out the front of our house,” Ms Russell said.

After receiving alternative accommodation at a hotel, the women were told a clearance certificate had been issued.

It declared the areas that had been inspected were safe for re-occupation. They could go back in.

But there was one problem: work on the shower hadn’t finished.

“There was a giant hole in the wall, and they just expected us to go back. And when we questioned them with that, they dumped a portaloo shower in our driveway,” Ms Gleeson said.

The tenants didn’t feel safe returning to the house. They questioned the clearance certificate, which was only based on air monitoring in three rooms.

They knew dust from the work in the bathroom had spread throughout the property.

‘A merry-go-round of talking to different agencies’

They went to Victoria’s Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to force the landlord to do more testing, and remove carpets they say had been covered in asbestos dust. They lost.

To challenge the clearance certificate, they would have had to pay up to $500 to hire their own expert.

“Tenants are really on the back foot with that,” said Mark O’Brien, CEO of Tenants Victoria.

“If you want to establish your own evidence, quite often you’ve got to pay a specialist to come and give you a report. And those kinds of expert reports can be very expensive.”

A woman wearing a protective suit to shield her from asbestos in her home.

When the legal challenge failed, the women donned their own suits and respirators to salvage what they could from the share house. Furniture and appliances that had been exposed to dust were written off.

All the while, the women received contradictory advice from government departments.

Because the asbestos exposure happened while work was underway, the house was classified a worksite.

The agency that regulates asbestos on worksites, WorkSafe Victoria, did visit the premises — but by that stage, it told the women in an email it did not have authority because work had finished.

The tenants also contacted Consumer Affairs Victoria. It told the women it was responsible for landlord and tenant issues — but not asbestos.

“It was just a merry-go-round of talking to different agencies,” Ms Russell said.

“They all didn’t have any clear picture of whose jurisdiction this was. No-one knew anything really about asbestos.”

Consumer Affairs Minister says case will be reviewed

Bags of items affected by asbestos dust

Victoria’s Minister of Consumer Affairs Marlene Kairouz told the ABC in a statement it was “a very concerning case and I know the frustration and anxiety of the tenants involved in this incident”.

“I have instructed my department to review this case and we’ll actively consider any changes needed to better protect tenants against exposure to this perilous material,” she said.

In June, the women launched a second claim to recover rent and money for some of the possessions they’d lost.

Bags of household items waiting to be removed after being tainted by asbestos dust.

They received a settlement offer that included a clause asking them to release the landlord and contractors from all claims arising from the discovery of asbestos.

Fearing they were now at risk of the deadly disease mesothelioma, they refused to sign.

“Potentially it prevents the girls in the future from bringing a claim if, God forbid, anything happens to them,” said Tracy Madden, one of the country’s leading asbestos lawyers.

“The difficulty with asbestos-related conditions is they often don’t turn up for decades.

“I would always urge people to get these sort of releases looked at to make sure they’re not inadvertently giving away rights.”

‘We just chose to fight’

Eventually, the women accepted a settlement offer they received just days before their compensation hearing.

The new settlement means they don’t have to give up any future asbestos claims.

“They really underestimated that we had nothing left to lose,” Ms Gleeson said.

“So we just chose to fight instead.”

Both tenants said they were worried about what might happen to the next tenants who rent their former house.

In some states, landlords are required to inform potential tenants about hazards like asbestos in a property. But not in Victoria.

“At the moment in the tenancy law there’s no obligation for anyone to tell to the tenant a past situation in the rented premises,” Mr O’Brien said.

“So this is a very significant gap in the tenancy law that needs to be addressed.”

Ms Madden said tenants deserved to be protected.

“It all comes down to: would you want your family living there? You need to be safe in your own home,” she said.

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