Gary Ryan didn't realise the danger of what he was doing all those years ago.

"I used to cut the stuff up all day. I used to go home looking like Father Christmas.

"I'd be white from head to foot with dust from cutting up fibrolite. No doubt, one of those occasions might have given it to me."

Eighteen months ago, he was diagnosed with Mesothelioma - a rare, aggressive form of cancer directly linked to asbestos exposure.


It can take anywhere between 15 and 40 years for the cancer to show.

And show it eventually did for Ryan, who is now 74 years old.

Ryan started working as an apprentice in 1959. "Right from that moment, I had the potential to be affected," he sighs.

He worked for a group housing company, where at their peak they were building a house a day.

"We used asbestos-laden products on every house we built." Every single one of these houses used fibrolite, he says. Fibrolite is a mixture of cement and asbestos.

"I would not have believed how dangerous [it] might be if I had been told about it when I was using it.

"You just look at the stuff and think 'oh can this harm ya', it's just a common cost-effective building material that everyone uses."

Ryan says there was no publicity at the time about the potential dangers of it.

"I had a building partner and we worked together on the same jobs, the same contracts, doing the same work, you know, side by side.

"I got it, he didn't. So, how do you explain that?"

He says it's vital that New Zealanders understand the risks that surround asbestos.

Tomorrow marks Mesothelioma Awareness Day - an already recognised day in the United States but also by firefighters in New Zealand who are often exposed to asbestos on call-outs.

Around 170 Kiwis are diagnosed with Mesothelioma each year. "That's almost half of the road toll," Chemcare's managing director David Serville says.

Asbestos is a fire resistant and good insulating material that's been used in many different building products, including roofs and walls, since the late 19th century.

In most cases, Serville says, it's quite safe because it's bound in to other materials, like cement or roofing tiles or plaster into walls.

"But when it becomes dry and flaky, that's when it's dangerous, when it starts to float in the air."

He says it's so light and indistinguishable that it can take up to three days to float back to the ground.

Even though the dangers of asbestos have been known for years, Chemcare says it seems people have chosen to overlook that because it's such a good product.

As of April 4 this year, the Ministry of Health required that every commercial and tenanted building had its own asbestos management plan.

Serville says it's important to know where the asbestos is in the building.

"Once you know where [it] is, then you know how to behave around it more safely.

"Then you can take clothing, mask, goggles, mask, safety precautions if you're going to dismantle it or take it out of the building."