The politics of Asbestos mining and use in everyday applications is vast and shocking when you take into consideration the negligence of those who clearly knew the associated dangers. As a technological product asbestos demonstrates the dangers that can be associated with technology especially when the process is financially driven. Its use is still seen in Australia and it seems that it will continue to be used until 2003 when there are plans to implement a total ban on its use.
On May 18, 2001 the Workplace Relations Ministers’ Council decided to ban the material that has caused illness and death for hundreds and thousands of people in Australia and overseas (Robinson, 2001). Thousands of miners taking the raw material from the ground as well as people exposed to its use in building applications were totally unaware of the dangers. The worst affected areas of Australia have been that of the Asbestos mine at Wittenoom in Western Australia, deemed as “Australia’s greatest industrial disaster” (Hills, p.12 1989), and the power stations of Gippsland’s Latrobe Valley.
Asbestos has been mined and used for nearly 2000 years for its fire resistant and insulation qualities. Roman slaves wore crude respirators made from animal bladders to protect themselves from breathing the visible fibres (The Age, March 4, 2001). They would not have known the potential dangers of breathing these fibres, nor would they have been aware, or known the dangers of the invisible fibres. It was not until 1898 that a link was made between lung cancer and exposure to asbestos (Barry, 1988)
In the twentieth century, despite medical knowledge that asbestos was dangerous, workers were routinely exposed to it until just 20 years ago and according to some reports, even up until this year (Financial Review, 28.2.01). The Wittenoom mine was opened by CSR in 1943 and closed in 1966. Those 23 years have been predicted to take up to 2000 lives of the miners and their families that lived close by in the township (Barry, 1988).
The first case of asbestosis at Wittenoom was in 1946, and in 1948 doctors warned CSR that there would be an epidemic of fatal chest disease if conditions did not improve.. In 1961 the first diagnosis of the virulent lung disease Mesothelioma was made. Mesothelioma has only one cause, breathing asbestos fibres, unlike lung cancer caused by asbestos that is very similar to lung cancer caused by Nicotine and other chemicals associated with smoking. Therefore, there was no other explanation as to why people could be inflicted with the disease. It takes many years to incubate but then kills within a very short time.
From 1950 to 1970 CSR ignored the warnings that were given and the fact that 100 workers within the mine had contracted asbestosis. It was not until 1977 that the first victim sued the company but he died before he could make it to court. By 1986, 300 victims from the Wittenoom mine were involved in legal action with CSR, to which the company still denied liability. The court battles went for three years before CSR paid out 15 million dollars. Alone that pay out figure seems quite big until you compare it to the then, 600 victims passed away or disabled.
The numbers of people affected by this tragedy is steadily growing and is expected to reach 2000 by the year 2020 (Hills, 1989 p. 144-5). The asbestos mined from Wittenoom was packed and shipped all around the world and Australia. The power stations of the Latrobe Valley in Gippsland, South Eastern Victoria, used massive amounts of asbestos in their construction. These power stations employed thousands of people who were exposed to this openly from the time of the first built power station in Yallourn, 1920’s (Wragg, 1995, p 2).
The fire resistant and insulation qualities being used to the full potential to insulate cooling pipes and towers directly around and above the workers. White asbestos powder looked like everyday plaster and was treated just as casually by these thousands of workers. A coal fired power station has thousands of meters of pipe lines to carry water and steam, and were all insulated by wetting the asbestos and plastering it over the pipes and covering it with asbestos bandage.
Between 1924 and 1980 thousands of tonnes had been used, every handful contained millions of fibres that would dry, crack and fill the air that the workers would breathe. The workers were not only unaware of the harm, they were also unaware that the dust levels grossly exceeded regulation levels that had been set in 1945 but never enforced. There was so much dust in the air that sometimes that they would have to wipe it from their tea-cups while drinking the tea (Four Corners, 26.2.01).
The SECV knew of the dangers of asbestos over 50 years before the Victorian Government finally accepted responsibility. In 1944, Dr. Douglas Shields of the Victorian Health Department toured the Yallourn power stations in the Latrobe Valley and warned of the dangers. He recommended the SECV provide health checks for workers but this was rejected by the management as unnecessary (Four Corners 2001). In 1957, the Victorian Health Department’s industrial hygiene division had recognised the dangers of asbestos by drafting stringent regulations (Dow, 1995). Still the workers were receiving no adequate protection or information.
By the late 1970s, workers in the Latrobe Valley unions were starting to become extremely worried about the number of their members who were succumbing to asbestos-related disease. Men who had worked in the floating dust of the power plants were dying. When they tried to seek legal redress from the State Electricity Commission, their actions were blocked in the courts by a huge and wealthy employer who could outlast them. Many died before their legal claims could be finished, which meant their families received far less compensation. The SECV fought every case, even though they lost all but one (Plunkett, 2001).
According to community workers in the Latrobe Valley, when they tried to organise support and advocacy groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were faced with significant local opposition (Warren, 2001). These groups were essential as by then, there was barely a family which did not have a member dead or dying from asbestos-related disease. When these groups tried to obtain publicity for their cause in the local newspaper, the Latrobe Valley Express, they received none. However, when they went to the Melbourne papers, they were able to get their story told (Daley, Paul, 1993) with the Age printing a full page article entitled “Death Valley”.
The response by the SECV, the local councils and the Latrobe Valley Express was to run a major article condemning the support group for ‘giving the Valley a bad name’ (Warren, 2001). One of those condemning the organisers of the support group was the Mayor of Morwell, who coincidentally was also the SECV Manager responsible for combating the legal claims of former workers suffering asbestos-related disease.
For decades, Unions and other groups have been active in trying to achieve justice for the former workers of the Latrobe Valley. 2001 has seen several breakthroughs. In March, the Victorian Government announced it had set aside $115 million as a fund to compensate anyone who could prove they had an asbestos-related disease arising from contact with an SEC site. (The Age, 3.3.01) On May 19, 2001, The Federal Government announced that the importation of raw asbestos and products will be banned in Australia by 2003 (Robinson, 2001). ACTU secretary Greg Combet hailed the decision as “great news for workers” but he lamented the lives of thousands of workers lost through exposure to asbestos.
The key factor in both the Wittenoom tragedy and Latrobe Valley, is that of the financial element. The CSR mine kept up extraction of asbestos, ignoring safety warnings, as it was an extremely lucrative commodity. The SECV used it in construction as an extremely cheap and effective solution to their insulation problems. Both companies resisted the compensation claims made by workers even though both companies are multi-billion dollar companies. In discussing that an artifact or substance has politics, asbestos demonstrates that it is not the artifact, or the substance, it is however, people.