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A breath of death


James Hardie – the name behind the names.” – from 1970s advertisements
“Asbestos Kills. James Hardie – the name behind the shame.” – from 1970s graffitiADSA march

Early in 2003 my grandfather died. A carpenter by trade, he’d been heavily exposed to asbestos building products manufactured by James Hardie Industries and CSR. The resultant mesothelioma seriously degraded his health and quality of life. It isn’t what killed him though. He was hit by a car while returning from a visit to a sick friend and died the next day without regaining consciousness.

Late in 2003 my father died. Of lung cancer. An electrician by trade, he had worked at a severely contaminated CSR site in the Sydney suburb of Rhodes. That’s probably not what killed him though. His heavy consumption of Marlboros and Winfields probably did. He’d finally given up smoking several years earlier following quadruple bypass surgery but it seems he left it too late.

Like the tobacco industry, those in the asbestos industry knew of the deadly effects of their products decades before the public did. And like Big Tobacco rather than warning consumers or implementing harm reduction measures they spent millions of dollars concealing, denying and downplaying the danger. As a result Australia has the highest recorded per capita asbestos related mortality in the world.

I grew up in a house made from James Hardie’s ‘fibro’ asbestos cement sheets. When I was about ten years old my family renovated, knocking down several walls. My younger brother and I were delighted to ‘help’ by karate kicking the brittle panels to pieces. No attempt was made to control dust or prevent us from inhaling it. We were oblivious to the threat it posed. DIY renovators and their families now account for about half of Australia’s asbestos deaths.

Asbestos kills. It kills miners, process workers, builders and renovators. It kills housewives who were contaminated while cleaning their husbands’ work clothes. It kills those who once tumbled in tailings Hardie and CSR dumped in schoolyards and playgrounds. It killed a popular NSW governor who was exposed during his service on the bridge of HMAS Melbourne. It kills those who never suspected they’d been in contact with it until their doctors broke the news. The death rate is climbing and will do so for years to come.

It took decades of outrage, activism and law suits to end the asbestos poisoning of Australia by James Hardie and CSR. The final legal battle was an extended rearguard action fought by Hardie to avoid paying compensation to the many employees it had doomed with its decades of denial. Hardie moved its headquarters overseas, first to the Netherlands then to Ireland, in an attempt to evade Australian law and opprobrium. It restructured itself to try to isolate liabilities in hived off funds that had insufficient assets to meet them. It appointed executives who lied again and again to the courts and media in an attempt to put off the inevitable. Some were banned from company directorships for up to five years while victims died uncompensated as the case slowly wound its way through the legal system. But James Hardie finally lost. By then the once well regarded sponsor of Australia’s biggest car race had become the country’s most despised brand.

For thirty years it has been illegal to mine, import or build with asbestos in Australia. Extensive codes of practice specify elaborate precautions for removing, transporting and disposing of asbestos contaminated material. These days few Australians are unaware of the threat posed by the large quantities of old asbestos remaining in our homes and suburbs. Legislation and education now protect us from its lethal legacy. Or so I thought until this month.

People say my friend Kenny is intellectually handicapped. His mother, Lena, died two years ago and his Jack Russell, Peter, died a few months later, leaving Kenny alone in his weatherboard Carrington home. A few metres from his front door, across a very narrow street, is the huge Metso building which from the 1940s until last year housed a metal works. Looming more than three storeys above is around ten thousand square metres of Hardie Super Six asbestos panels. For seventy years the vibration of heavy machinery has been shaking dust from the sheets onto the building and roads below. The prevailing winds blow towards the tightly packed houses in Kenny’s street. Last year it was announced the Metso building would be demolished and replaced with a warehouse. In accordance with NSW law a licenced specialist in asbestos removal would be tasked with disposing of the roof.

Although his verbal skills are limited Kenny takes a keen interest in local affairs. He attended public meetings about the demolition accompanied by a friend who helped interpret for him. Attendees were told the demolition would take between three and four months and that asbestos removal would be done in accordance with the 64 page code of practice stipulated by the NSW Government SafeWork Authority. Among other things the code mandates monitoring of airborne asbestos fibres, an enclosure around the work-site to prevent their escape and a barrier three metres away robust enough to prevent onlookers from getting in or debris from getting out. At least that’s what it appears to say.

When I checked the site I saw no air monitoring equipment, no enclosure and no barrier beyond a low, flimsy wire and shade-cloth fence a child could push over. I soon learned the provisions of the code are only mandatory for ‘Class A’ removal of friable asbestos. They are discretionary for the ‘Class B’ asbestos containing materials that probably cause the bulk of asbestos related diseases. Contractors can submit plans that ignore many provisions of the code and expect to have them approved.

So it would seem the NSW Code of Practice for Safe Asbestos Removal is largely a work of fiction. Its discretionary enforcement offers little more than reassuring platitudes for the public but ample opportunity for official corruption. There would be no point asking SafeWork NSW to intervene on behalf of Carrington residents.

But what about the NSW Environment Protection Authority? OK, I’d worked with them in the 1980s and found them mostly ineffective. Shortly afterwards some of the inspectors I knew were jailed for taking bribes. But environmental legislation has been strengthened since then and maybe seeing their colleagues locked up had stiffened their resolve. Nope. Turns out the EPA has been deliberately concealing asbestos contamination from the public to ‘protect property values’. Here in Australia property values often outweigh human lives.

Last week a group of neighbours came to Kenny’s home. They’d seen men working in full protective gear only metres from their unprotected gardens and children and were understandably concerned. They told Kenny he needed to keep his doors and windows closed. They gave him a dust mask to wear whenever he was outside.

When Kenny phoned he was distressed and confused. He asked whether he’d need to keep the mask on while at the supermarket or attending his day care centre several suburbs away. Only one fact seems to have sunk in.
“‘Bestos can kill me!”, Kenny said.
He’s right.


Correction (25 July):  I originally thought the people who gave Kenny a mask and advised him to close his doors and windows were from the asbestos removal company. I corrected this post after learning they were residents.

From → autobiography

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