The death of remarkable Australian mountaineer Lincoln Hall from mesothelioma last month, at the age of just 56, has brought back into sharp focus the deadly properties of asbestos.
Hall was a man so tough that, in 2006, he survived a night without oxygen or shelter in the withering cold of an 8,700 metre slope on Mount Everest after his Sherpa guide had left him for dead — yet in the end he could not defy the the deadly fibres within his chest.
Australians are well aware of the dangers caused by asbestos, especially as a result of campaigning journalist Matt Peacock, who exposed this toxic industry from the 1970s onwards. His unceasing efforts, and the efforts of campaigners such as the late Bernie Banton, eventually resulted in a complete ban on the product in Australia in 1991.
What Australians may not be aware of is that, largely because of a nation not dissimilar to Australia – Canada – this deadly industry continues around the world, and especially in developing nations such as India. Matt Peacock recently travelled to India and Canada to continue his campaigning journalism for the ABC, exposing Canada and its continued toxic trade in asbestos products in the third world, as well as the deadly epidemic of disease and death it is certain to cause.
Asbestos: the biggest industrial killer the world has ever known
Asbestos is regarded as being the biggest industrial killer the world has ever seen, with a death toll calculated by the World Health Organisation at 107,000 a year, or about one person every 5 minutes. About 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace. The International Labor Organisation estimates that the likely death toll from asbestos could ultimately reach 10 million people.
The term “asbestos” refers to a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals which all contain thin fibrous crystals which provide asbestos products of a heat resistant and durable nature. Its use dates back at least 4,500 years, to a time in which evidence shows an ancient Finnish tribe used asbestos material in earthenware pots and cooking utensils.
The name itself comes from ancient Greek scholars from around the 3rd century BC — who referred to the material as “asbestinon”, which literally means “unquenchable”, as a result of the substance’s fire resistant properties.
Indeed, studies show the fibres in asbestos are stronger than steel and extremely resistant, which leads to both its desirable industrial qualities as well as its hazardous health impacts. These health impacts, indeed, have been observed since around the time of Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, who noticed that slaves working with asbestos cloth developed sicknesses in the lungs.
Asbestos use has been recorded constantly throughout history in various parts of the world, although its use declined in the middle ages. Asbestos use did not become truly widespread again until it was popularised by Britain in the late 1800s during the industrial revolution. It began to be mined then in large amounts and a great many factories producing asbestos materials for industry and construction quickly began to spring up almost everywhere in the industrialised world.
By 1900, though, researchers began to notice a large number of deaths and illnesses in asbestos mining towns, and studies in 1917 and 1918 showed asbestos workers were dying unnaturally young. The first diagnosis of the deadly lung disease asbestosis was made in the UK in 1924 and by the 1930’s, the UK regulated ventilation and made asbestosis an excusable work related disease; this was followed by the U.S. about ten years later.
Despite this, asbestos use actually increased up until the 1970s, at which time it was being mined in 25 countries — with the world’s largest being the Jeffrey mine in the somewhat unimaginatively named town of Asbestos, Quebec.
Use of asbestos began to decline as the adverse health effects – especially from mesothelioma, an otherwise rare form of cancer, along with the chronic inflammatory lung disease asbestosis – began to be well-known. There is no safe form of asbestos, according to the World Health Organisation; all forms – including white asbestos, or chrysotile – are carcinogenic and hazardous to human health.
In Australia, it was largely through the work of ABC reporter Matt Peacock that the adverse health impacts of the then ubiquitous construction product, usually known as “fibro”, became well-known. Peacock’s investigations into the Australian construction products supplier James Hardie, and campaigning efforts by former Hardie employees, such as the now deceased Bernie Banton, led to Governments in Australia regulating the product, before finally banning it entirely in 1991.
The asbestos industry battled ferociously against efforts at regulation, but in the end Hardie had no choice but to agree to provide the many thousands of victims, and their families, with what will eventually amount to billions of dollars in compensation. Peacock has written a book on this subject, Killer Company, which is soon to be made into an ABC miniseries. In a doleful footnote to the Australian asbestos era, public authorities are now working to remove asbestos from millions of Australian buildings — something that is also a severe and ever-present health danger.
Asbestos use is now banned in over 50 other countries, including 12 European Union nations. The trade in white asbestos (chrysotile), largely to the developing world, continues largely due to the efforts of a single highly industrialised nation — Canada.
Canada’s unceasing efforts to sustain the absestos industry
David Donovan, Independent Australia