Sydney, Australia — In the bustling downtown business district of this country’s largest city, I saw consumers driving cars, buying appliances and other hardware for their homes. I also saw Cecil Patten, a 41-year-old Aboriginal, a very sad member of the small Bunjalung tribe from the northeast Bush area of the state of New South Wales. Many of his people who worked and lived around an asbestos mine from 1944 to 1979 are dying or are sick from the deadly asbestos dust that covered the miners and their families like a cloud.
Few are the shoppers who give much thought to the miners of the world who make so many of their purchases possible. Miners are the invisible ones who, in remote areas of the world, dig the minerals from the ground — copper, coal, zinc, lead, silver, iron, many other metals and…asbestos. From the deep South African pits to the frigid mines of northern Canada and Siberia, the miners work under conditions ranging from wretched to miserable.
The asbestos mine in the remote Baryulgil region is beginning to come to the attention of the Australian people. It was operated for 32 years by James Hardie Industries Ltd. with a total workforce of between 200 to 300 people. A small Bunjalung village sits about 500 yards away. In dollars, the village was better off than most Aboriginal communities. That is not to say very much. Its roads were mostly dirt tracks, running water was not available until 1976, electricity came in May 1983, and disease levels (diabetes, high blood pressure and infant mortality) have been very high. Only a half dozen families still reside at Baryulgil. The rest moved away to other nearby reserves or local towns after the mine closed and the dangers of their asbestos-immersed community were communicated to them.
As U.S. court cases have documented, asbestos companies knew about the dangers of those microscopic asbestos fibers to human lungs during the Nineteen Thirties at the latest. This metal, used in water pipes, brake linings and construction materials worldwide, is now known to cause three separate diseases.
One is asbestosis in the lungs leading to high blood pressure and heart disease. A thirty-year-old Bunjalung worker, who looks fifty, can hardly breathe after a dozen quick steps. Another asbestos disease is lung cancer and the third is mesothelioma — a cancer of the chest that takes anywhere from 20 to 40 years after exposure to suddenly manifest itself.
Cecil Patten and attorneys for the Aboriginal Legal Service describe the horrifying conditions at the mine: “Miners worked in a dense cloud of dust, being unable to see the wall inside the mill from a distance of a few yards, and shoveling asbestos into sacks whilst in such a dust cloud as to be unable to see the man holding the sack.” There were no industrial hygiene surveys until 1970. At one site in September, 1970, the airborne asbestos dust reading was 1760 fibers per cubic centimeter. The official standard then was 4 fibers per cubic centimeter.
Workers’ families were contaminated when women and children washed the miners’ asbestos—covered clothing. Asbestos tailings were used to resurface the tracks around Baryulgil Square and around homes especially after rains. Tailings were used in the construction of the local school. Bunjalung children grew up playing in the asbestos tailings and their mothers described them as coming home covered from head to foot with asbestos dust. Recurrent dust clouds from the mine would lead to a visible haze Inside their homes.
The lawyers are preparing to file claims against the companies and their insurance carriers. A parliamentary inquiry is underway. The sick attend the funerals of the miners regularly while the legal process grinds forward slowly.
The companies are into other businesses. The James Hardie group, a conglomerate, sponsors the James Hardie 1000 motor race every October in New South Wales. Cecil Patten worries about the other James Hardie 1000 — the former mine workers and their dependents. He is a quiet man with a sense for telling phrases. James Hardie Industries advertises itself with the words: “The name behind the name.” Mr. Patten translates this slogan into “The name behind the shame.”