Grace Under Fire
Do you have a hero? I have twenty: the officers, counsellors, members of staff and support workers at the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA), a group of folks who have been confronting the asbestos tragedy in Western Australia for nearly 35 years.1
IBAS Coordinator Laurie Kazan-Allen and some of her heroes. April 2014.
Having had the privilege of spending some time with them at their Perth offices over recent weeks, I can report that their commitment to the injured is unflagging, their level of political mobilization remains high and their tenacious determination to protect future generations from the scourge of asbestos diseases is inspirational. Day after day these individuals wage a full-on war against asbestos injustice and yet they do so within an environment which is welcoming and supportive. The piles of case notes, the banks of filing cabinets and the overloaded bookcases are testament to the tens of thousands of members who have been assisted by ADSA staff yet no one is treated like a number. Each person who walks through their doors is greeted as a friend and receives the care and attention that one would wish for their nearest and dearest. How they do it, I don't know but they do. Bearing in mind that each of the 305 members who died in 2013 from asbestos-related diseases was a friend, the ADSA's ability to maintain a relaxed atmosphere and a productive schedule is truly amazing.
A brief trawl through some of the Society's figures for 2013 demonstrates the size of the workload being dealt with:
While the figures above are informative, they represent only a tiny part of the work done by the ADSA. Much of the impact of the Society's efforts is unseen. The ADSA, in consultation with its members, politicians and legal advisors, has been instrumental in changing dozens of laws to improve victims' access to justice and support. It has advocated relentlessly on behalf of its members and developed an unparalleled expertise in asbestos issues. The Society pioneered efforts to pierce the corporate veil which had, in the bad old days, bullet-proofed Australian corporations from asbestos claims. It stood toe to toe with obstructive civil servants, devious politicians and profit-driven businessmen such as Lang Hancock, the Australian entrepreneur who developed the infamous Wittenoom Crocidolite Mine. As late as 1990, Hancock denied that exposure to asbestos could be harmful: There is he wrote no asbestos in the town [Wittenoom] that is of any harm to anyone.3 And yet, thousands of Wittenoom miners, millers, transient workers, visitors and residents have died from asbestos-related diseases. Thanks to the Society and its legal advisors claims arising out of [Wittenoom] exposure post-1966 are all resolved. None took longer than about four months. The Society has an abiding commitment to medical research and to this end has developed close relationships with leading Australian figures working in this field. The archive of blood samples collected by Perth scientists, an invaluable tool for research into asbestos-related diseases, has been supported by the ADSA whose members freely and gratefully supplied blood and DNA samples over more than twenty years. If you think that all of this sounds too good to be true, I would agree except that I have seen it first hand; this much and so much more can be said about this incredible group of people.
On March 16, 2014 the ADSA held its annual general meeting. On a Sunday of blue skies and bright sunshine, scores of members turned out to show support for the Society. After the constitutional issues had been covered, guest speakers had the opportunity to update members on areas of mutual interest:
The Hon Kate Doust MLA.
Professor Anna Nowak and the painting Bush Medicine Leaves by artist Gloria Petyarre presented by the ADSA on March 16, 2014.
In the days after the AGM, I had the opportunity to catch up with Society personnel. As I had previously seen, no sooner is one event done and dusted, than planning for the next begins. With Easter fast approaching there were cards to be sent out and people to be remembered for their thoughtfulness towards ADSA members. The scheduling of both the annual walk from Pemberton to Perth and charity golfing day in September means that work is now well underway on the logistics, staffing and media planning for these events. When asked what he saw as the main challenge facing the Society, President Robert Vojakovic replied: Without a doubt, this has to be finding a cure for mesothelioma. The Society's Medical Advisor Dr. Deleuil, who has arguably seen more people with asbestos-related disease than any other medical practitioner, agreed:
In Western Australia (WA), it is well known what a diagnosis of melanoma, mesothelioma, breast or prostate cancer means. While there are cures for three of these cancers, there is no cure for mesothelioma. People in WA know this.
Dr. Greg Deleuil in his ADSA office.
Given the ubiquity of asbestos in Australia's built environment, the slow pace with which it is being removed and the casual attitude many people still have to the asbestos health risk, it is an unwelcome fact of life that the epidemic of asbestos-related diseases which makes the country one of the worst affected by these diseases will continue for the foreseeable future. If more evidence were needed of the scale of the situation, just days after the AGM a local newspaper reported asbestos contamination at Lords recreation center in the popular and upscale Perth suburb of Subiaco.5 The front page raised the stakes with its large typeface headline: Asbestos crisis at Lords. Given the acknowledged expertise of the ADSA, it was unsurprising that the report included a quote from President Robert Vojakovic:
An asbestos roof is an appalling risk, even if it is closely monitored . The average residential roof would release two or three billion fibres a day and the larger roof, the more fibres. This is a potential environmental disaster. An asbestos roof is like an unexploded bomb you don't just close down the building, you defuse the bomb. You remove it.
Vojakovic said he was shocked that such a rich council had not seen sense and removed the asbestos roof. Following his intervention and the public outcry which ensued, Subiaco Council agreed to fast-track the removal and replacement of the contaminated roof at a cost of Aus$1.5 million.6
I feel honoured to have witnessed the activities of one of the world's most outstanding grassroots citizens' advocacy groups in Perth earlier this month. Although the walk to raise public awareness and research funds is still five months away, I left a small contribution. It was, after all, the least I could do. I hope you will do the same.
April 22, 2014
2 Rabe T. Deadly Legacy. Stirling Times. February 4, 2014.
3 Marshall D. The House of Hancock: The Rise and Rise of Gina Rinehart. William Heinemann Australia, 2012.
4 University of Western Australia Press Release: Award recognition for excellence in care for asbestos victims. March 20, 2014.
5 Candler R. Asbestos Crisis at Lords. March 25-April 1, 2014 edition of the Western Suburbs Weekly.
6 Gorman L. Lords tenants pray for help. Post. March 29, 2014. [Pages 3 & 109].