Review – Asbestos in Australia: From Boom to Dust

Asbestos in Australia: From Boom to Dust, edited by Lenore Layman and Gail Phillips, Monash University Publishing, October 2019, ISSN 9781925835618
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It’s easy to forget, in the middle of a global climate emergency, that “The Environment” is not a monolithic category, nor indeed, a unitary reality. It is a system, comprised of interconnected subsystems. One of those is human society. Capitalism has indeed damaged the framework of the planet’s organic ecosystems, particularly the physical chemistry of the atmosphere and the ocean. Yet it also damages human biology. And it does that in a manner that cannot be separated from one’s economic position within society.

It is absolutely correct to assert that capitalism has trashed — is trashing — the biology of the whole earth. Yet, this idea is so often simply expressed in a statement such as “we are destroying the earth,” or similar. My gut response is to yell at the screen: “Who is this ‘WE’?” because capitalism is also trashing and directly poisoning the poor. The story of the asbestos industry is a case in point.

Asbestos in Australia certainly hints at the class divide of asbestos poisoning. There is a discussion of the concentration of asbestos fibre cement houses in the largely working class suburbs of Western Sydney and East Perth. In some of the working class areas, some 50% of houses were built from the material. The proportion in wealthy eastern suburbs was less than one percent. There was a clear regional divide, too. At the peak of asbestos use in construction, about 60% of new housing in rural towns in some states and the Northern Territory used the material. Asbestos sheeting was cheap to make and to transport. As cheap as the lives it would destroy.

Also cheap were the lives of the people who mined the raw minerals and the communities who supported them. Those who breathed in clouds of fine dust every day, except on the wettest days. Except that, in Wittenoom, the most notorious of asbestos mining settlements, it rarely rained. And in Baryulgil, where Bundjalung people worked for slave wages, you needed cast-off hessian sacks from the packing sheds to block the windows of the unglazed hut you had built from industrial waste. You breathed in the toxic dust as you slept.

I don’t intend to summarise each section of the book, which details the use (abuse) of asbestos in the built environment, the question of dust hazards, the great work of dedicated activists and journalists in bringing the (literally) dirty history of the asbestos industry to light. Exposing the lies, like the often-told bullshit that they — the mining and building firms — “didn’t know” about the deadly nature of their products. They damned well did. It was impossible to insure asbestos workers in the British Empire after the late nineteenth century. And why did the insurance underwriters shy clear? As reports;

“Greek geographer Strabo noted a ‘sickness of the lungs’ in slaves who wove asbestos into cloth. Roman historian, naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder, wrote of the ‘disease of slaves,’ and actually described the use of a thin membrane from the bladder of a goat or lamb used by the slave miners as an early respirator in an attempt to protect them from inhaling the harmful asbestos fibres as they laboured.”

Other sections of the book look at the terrible diseases caused through even casual asbestos exposure. Diseases which, echoing COVID-19, most often see victims dying horribly with fluid-filled lungs. And, of course, there are the untreatable cancers. Perhaps the most reprehensible part of the history is the legal manoeuvring and deliberate stalling aimed at delaying court action until an asbestos victim had died. Former government minister, Julie Bishop, made a legal career doing just that in Western Australian courts.

Real justice would not see those poisoned spending their dying months and life savings trying to prove the genesis and extent of their injuries. Real justice would see company directors, CEOs and a good number of their legal counsel on remand, awaiting trial for criminal negligence and wilful injury. That is the long and short of it. The book talks about dealing with asbestos in situ — the continuing legacy of this criminal industry. From my balcony, just for example, I can see a “Durasbestos” fence on a property across the street. The stuff is everywhere in the built environment in Australia. Indeed, it is impossible to demolish a house built before the turn of this century without calling in a specialist removal team.

Finally, there are the stories of the witnesses. The doctors, the activists, the probing lawyers, the unionists, including the incomparable Bernie Banton, who continued the struggle while literally on his death bed. The industry tried its delaying tactics on him. But he held out, in the words of songwriter-unionist Peter Hicks, “one more day than them!” The term “hero” gets tossed around too easily; Bernie was a real working class example!

This book is not a simple read, nor a quick one, yet it is a worthy resource, not least because in and around the detailed, referenced history, the scientific, legal and epidemiological discussion, there is woven a shining gold thread of humanity. It is a worthy body of work.

Returning to the thread I left dangling above, the class nature of environmental disasters. And the racial divide that also runs through them.

I have had a long history dealing with the effects of the asbestos disaster. As a young union activist, I threw myself into eradicating it from my industry, the rail industry. The union working party had a dark joke that the place was built of asbestos with a bit of brick and timber to hold it in place. This was more truth than fiction, though. It’s why so many old railway buildings have disappeared. Landfill was the safest place for them. Almost the entire fleet of one class of passenger carriages lies interred in two disused clay pits in the southeastern suburbs of Melbourne. That, too, was the safest thing to do.

But our work in the 1980s was too late for some. As in many industries, the “day-labourers,” as they were called, came from the poorer parts of town, and a great majority were migrants. That made them expendable. In my industry it was they who worked in the dirtiest, dustiest jobs. One work project aimed to modify older vehicles to 1970s standards (the same carriages that are now buried). The project involved cutting into asbestos linings with power tools. Those who operated the saws and drills, at Ballarat East Workshops, were engulfed in clouds of asbestos that began choking them immediately. It was not gradual. The union stopped it within weeks, but the damage was done. By the time I came on the scene 15 years later, everyone who took part in the process was dead, and there were injured workers in other parts of the workplace. And family members…

Yet I think the starkest images I have of this institutional atrocity are from the main street of Baryulgil. The timber and tin huts people lived in. The street was unmade; the potholes filled with asbestos waste. Outside the settlement, the bare mounds — hills really — of tailings from the mine. Leaching asbestos into the waterways and broadcasting it into the atmosphere.

I was told by another activist, a few years later, that they had made the tailings dumps safe. Not to protect Bundjalung people. No! To minimise the risk of prize beef cattle contracting cancer. The squatters were worried about their property but the colonised people could just take their chances. Like the migrant miners and labourers and the working class in general, they were simply expendable. Eventually health authorities did CT scans on the townspeople at Baryulgil, in a mobile facility called the “lung bus.” One hundred percent of people tested showed signs of degenerative lung disease!

The asbestos industry is merely a reflection of the utter environmental and economic travesty of capitalism. A system that can only exist through exploitation and destruction.

The difference with the asbestos industry is that the guilty can be identified by name. Their wealth and influence means they remain unpunished.

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