Asbestos: Truth & Consequences in Australia
By 2020, it is predicted that 18,000 Australians will have died from mesothelioma, a rare type of asbestos cancer; adding mortality from asbestos-related lung cancer, this represents an avoidable loss of up to 54,000 lives.1 In Australia, asbestos, the miracle fiber of the 20th century, was promoted:
more enthusiastically than (in) any other country per capita usage, at 5.5 kilos per year, was more than double that of the United States. 'Fibro,' as it came to be called, was cheap, light, and resistant to termites just the material for the hundreds of thousands of new homes needed to house the colossal inflows of postwar migration, which doubled Sydney's population in two decades.
According to figures just released by the West Australian Cancer Registry, building workers and DIY enthusiasts account for more new cases of mesothelioma (30%) than former asbestos miners from the infamous Wittenoom crocidolite mine (16%) in Western Australia (WA). Whereas the report predicted 50-70 new cases of mesothelioma per year, Robert Vojakovic, President of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) sees a much bleaker future:
The epidemic is here now, there's no doubt, and it will get worse because even now people are not being properly protected We've already had 120 new cases this year in WA and that's staggering.2
ADSA support worker Rosemary Vojakovic is concerned at the ubiquity of the disease in WA:
We're hearing from people about how their dads used to fiddle around the house with asbestos and we're finding that increasingly it (mesothelioma) seems to be all coming back to (exposure in) the family home There's so many of them now it's scary and we're also getting a huge wave from the building industry, people like carpenters, they're just pouring through the door. We're getting people from their late 40s to their 70s and older.
According to data from a statutory authority in New South Wales (NSW), hazardous exposures experienced by employees, their relatives and tradesmen to asbestos-containing building materials produced by James Hardie Asbestos Ltd., now the James Hardie Company, were responsible for nearly half the asbestos deaths which have already occurred in Australia. In an audacious financial manoeuvre, the company has relocated its corporate headquarters from Australia to the Netherlands to put its assets beyond the reach of Australian asbestos victims, leaving behind a shell foundation, the Medical Research and Compensation Fund, which is rapidly running out of funds to compensate asbestos victims.
On September 21, 2004, the extent of James Hardie's double dealings was revealed in a 1,000 page report written by David Jackson QC.3 Since then, negotiations between the company, government, trade union and asbestos victims' representatives have failed to reach an agreement. On November 21, 2005, the NSW Government announced that if Hardie failed to sign an agreement to compensate its Australian victims within one week, legislation would be passed. On November 21, a demonstration was held in Sydney to protest Hardie's intransigence. Bernie Banton, asbestosis sufferer and Vice-President of the Asbestos Diseases Foundation said:
Today is a day of protest against James Hardie and their lack of effort to get the deal signed off. It's time for them to pay up. They need to do it this week without fail, or we will be encouraging the New South Wales Government to move against them.4
Morris Iemma, the Premier of NSW, has reached the end of his tether:
The legislation will either give effect to the heads of agreement, which would become part of a legislative package to protect and provide access to funds for the victims of asbestos. If it doesn't then the legislation will seek to re-establish access to the holding company's $1.9 billion to provide for long-term access to funds for the victims of James Hardie.
We stand 100 per cent with the victims of the James Hardie case, 100 per cent with them in getting justice and access to funds in the long-term to provide for compensation there's no reason why an agreement cannot be reached, but it's gone on long enough and the Government will legislate.5
The proposals currently under discussion, referred to as draft 12, are expected to cost the company A$4.5 billion over the next 40 years.
The demonstration held in Sydney followed by the official launch of Asbestos Awareness Week at the Maritime Museum were just two of the activities organised during Asbestos Awareness Week (November 21-25, 2005) throughout Australia. Other events which took place included:
Adelaide, November 23 Memorial Service and unveiling of an Asbestos Victims' Memorial at Pitman Park;
Melbourne, November 25 Commemoration Service in Federation Square;
Gippsland, November 25 Annual Asbestos Awareness Day Ceremony in the Rose Garden, Morwell, Ecumenical Service and picnic;
Brisbane, November 25 Ecumenical Service at St. Stephan's Cathedral and lunch;
Perth, November 23 & 24 information sessions at Mirrabooka Shopping Centre; November 25 Ecumenical Memorial Service at St. George's Cathedral.
November 30, 2005
2 O'Leary C. DIY Men are new Asbestos Victims. November 25, 2005.
3 See: James Hardie Condemned! and Attempt at Damage Limitation by Major Asbestos Defendant
4 Geoghegan A. Asbestos Victims Demand Hardies Pay Up. November 21, 2005. 5 Glanville B. NSW Govt to Compel James Hardie to Pay. November 21, 2005.
4 Geoghegan A. Asbestos Victims Demand Hardies Pay Up. November 21, 2005.
5 Glanville B. NSW Govt to Compel James Hardie to Pay. November 21, 2005.