Asbestos Awareness Down Under
November is asbestos awareness month in Australia. Personal initiatives taking place this month from blue lamington drives to afternoon teas are complimented by more formal activities such as public outreach projects on the east coast spearheaded by Betty, the Asbestos Bus,1 ecumenical services on the west coast2 and various activities by asbestos victims, patients, campaigners, local authorities, national agencies and charities in between.3
With the worlds only Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, Australia is at the cutting edge of efforts to deal with the industrial and environmental legacy of asbestos use. In November 2014, the Agency held its first international asbestos conference; this month, the second such event will take place in Brisbane.4 Despite all that is being done, however, asbestos exposures continue to occur on an almost daily basis due to illegal imports of contaminated products and/or lack of compliance with asbestos regulations.5 Throughout the country, the malevolent consequences of toxic exposures continue to wreak havoc on citizens and communities alike.
The repercussions of asbestos mining in the towns of Wittenoom, Western Australia and Baryulgil, New South Wales are well-known but while the authorities were able to minimize the asbestos hazard in Wittenoom by shutting it down, more or less, people continue to live in Baryulgil. An article published a few days ago (November 7, 2015) describes the long-term effects of life in this former company town.6 Unsurprisingly, many former mine workers have died from asbestos-related cancers and diseases; few of them received compensation from James Hardie, despite their employer having negligently exposed them to asbestos. The Killer Company, as the James Hardie company was dubbed by Journalist Matt Peacock, was able to literally get away with murder in a town populated by indigenous people with low life expectancies.
The exposure to asbestos in Baryulgil was perhaps the highest in the world. But the mines operator, James Hardie, did not tell residents or workers of the risks until decades after they were known
When the health impacts were finally revealed, compensation was almost non-existent. Health records were hidden and autopsies rare. Some speculate that all this was deliberate: that James Hardie banked on the fact indigenous workers would die early anyway, and the cause not be questioned because it would be blamed on alcohol or cigarettes. They banked on the fact no one would notice how few men in the cemetery were aged over 40.
The mine has now been closed for over 30 years but people keep dying. Just breathing in the air in Baryulgil or driving on the roads or going to school can prove fatal. Sufferers of asbestos diseases contracted from environmental exposures are not eligible for compensation from the Dust Diseases Board or James Hardie. It is a short and brutal life for many and a tragic one for those left to mourn. It is well past time that the Australian federal and state authorities acted to assuage the communitys suffering, support the injured and implement a remediation plan which provides this toxic town with a healthy future.
November 12, 2015
1 Betty, the Asbestos House.
Bettys Facebook Page!
2 Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia. Invitation to Ecumenical Service.
5 Vic School Asbestos Scare Mishandled. November 8, 2015.
6 Chenery, S. James Hardies Baryulgil Asbestos Mining Genocide. November 7, 2015.