Book Review: Killer Company James Hardie Exposed
Matt Peacock. Sydney: ABC Books, 2009
Australia has the highest recorded incidence of mesothelioma in the world because in the period from 1945 until the mid 1970s Australia was one of the highest users of asbestos based products. The local market was dominated by a single firm James Hardie Asbestos and to a large degree the Australian asbestos story is the story of James Hardie.
James Hardie shares much in common with Johns Manville, Eternit and Turner & Newall. Hardie was a vertically integrated company which enjoyed great commercial success in the decades after 1945. That success was built on an ever widening range of building and insulation materials. Hardie owned asbestos mines in Australia, Canada and briefly in Zimbabwe and manufacturing plants in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Like Johns Manville, it has survived the asbestos scandal to re-invent itself as a non-asbestos building materials manufacturer. Like Johns Manville, James Hardie has used a variety of strategies to inure itself from the people it has injured.
Killer Company is a major contribution to the literature on the asbestos industry. The book has grown out of Matt Peacock's sustained engagement with the issue of asbestos and health. It is based on long hours of archival work sorting through Hardie's internal correspondence. Peacock has also interviewed many of the key players. The result is an insight into the mentality and behaviour of an important asbestos company.
Matt Peacock has played a major role in publicising the risks of asbestos in Australia. In his work as a journalist he has helped to expose the behaviour of the asbestos industry toward its employees, and the consumers of its products. In 1977 Peacock broke the story of Baryulgil, a small chrysotile mine which Hardie operated in northern New South Wales. The work force at Baryulgil was drawn from the indigenous Bundjalung people who lived and worked under conditions every bit as severe as those endured by black workers in South Africa. It was Matt Peacock not James Hardie who warned the community of the risks of asbestos disease. He was also instrumental in forcing a Parliamentary enquiry into the operation of the Baryulgil mine.
In Killer Company Peacock reviews the extent to which Hardie's senior management engaged in the same kind of behaviour that has been documented in British and US courts about Cape Asbestos, T&N and Johns Manville. Hardie knew far more about the risks of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma than did regulatory authorities or trade unions. Armed with that knowledge it refused over a period of decades to reduce the risks faced by its employees or the users of its products. When a flood of litigation began in the mid 1970s Hardie avoided bad publicity by settling cases out of court. When that failed it sought to move its assets out of the reach of potential claimants. The bad publicity surrounding a move of assets to The Netherlands in 2004 has seen James Hardie become probably the most reviled corporation in Australia. Peacock shows that such a reputation is well deserved.
The health risk of asbestos has taken many forms from workplace exposure, to the dumping of waste and the use of fibre in the most unlikely of products such dental amalgam and children's play dough. Until the 1970s it was common for waste from Hardie's Adelaide factory to be used to dress domestic driveways, pathways and garage floors. In New South Wales thousands of tonnes of waste was dumped into rivers and creeks and on roadways and football ovals. Such waste is virtually indestructible but at least when deposited outdoors by-stander exposure to airborne fibre is sporadic.
Each year thousands of tonnes of crocidolite, amosite and chrysotile arrived at Hardie factories which resulted in the accumulation of hundreds of thousands of hessian bags. In Sydney and Melbourne the bags were recycled by market gardeners to carry potatoes, carrots and onions. In Western Australia wheat farmers received fertiliser in the same bags. Over the period from 1944 to 1966 the Wittenoom crocidolite mine in Western Australia produced 160,000 tonnes of fibre. That fibre was transported in 45 kilograms hessian bags. Matt Peacock has discovered that hundreds of thousands of those bags ended up in domestic dwellings as carpet underlay. Consequently, an unknown number of Australian homes have been contaminated and an unknown number of residents continue to live at risk, every hour of every day.
There is no easy way to estimate the human and commercial cost of the asbestos industry. That is because in parts of Asia and SE Asia the industry is alive and well. It is also because as Matt Peacock has shown the extent of by-stander exposure in the OECD states is still unfolding.
Killer Company is an important book.
School of Global Studies
January 21, 2010