Sydney parks cordoned off, Mardi Gras event cancelled after asbestos concerns

FILE PHOTO: The city centre skyline is seen in Sydney

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australian authorities on Friday cordoned off areas in several parks in Sydney after the discovery of asbestos in mulch, while precautionary testing began in schools as the government scrambled to remove the toxic material from public spaces.

Asbestos was found in a playground in Sydney's inner west in January and subsequent investigations spotted it in recycled mulch at several locations near the park constructed above an underground road interchange.

Since then about 20 city sites including transport projects, a primary school, a supermarket and a hospital were confirmed contaminated.

Sydney City Council said it would begin inspecting 33 parks, some in popular tourist spots, and dozens of garden beds where the contaminated mulch may have been used. The testing will take up to several weeks.

About 700 students at a public school in Sydney's southwest will be relocated for several weeks after asbestos was found on campus. Inspections began at seven other schools, with findings expected later on Friday, officials said.

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Fair Day event scheduled for Sunday, which usually draws tens of thousands of revellers, was cancelled after traces of asbestos were found around the venue.

Asbestos became popular from the late 19th century onwards as a way to reinforce cement and for fireproofing, but research later found the inhalation of asbestos fibres could cause lung inflammation and cancer. It is now banned in much of the world.

Except for one location, the type of asbestos discovered is bonded asbestos which is considered low risk to human health and environment, the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) said.

"If it's bonded and not disturbed ... then the risk remains low but it's important to have a precautionary approach," New South Wales state Executive Director of Health Protection Jeremy McAnulty said during a press briefing.

The New South Wales state government has set up a task force to provide more resources and staff to help support the EPA.

"This is the largest investigation the Environment Protection Authority has undertaken in recent decades. The complex, criminal investigation involves multiple lines of enquiry," Environment Minister Penny Sharpe said in a statement.

The state government's top priority is "contact tracing" down the supply chain, and to then facilitate testing, reporting and management of any positive results, Sharpe said.

(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Jamie Freed)