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Pantland, Walton (1999) The Dust is Gone but the Effects Linger On. Mail & Guardian October: 0-0.

Workers at Cape Town’s Athlone power station are afraid. They’ve seen several of their colleagues die of asbestosis, and many more are beginning to look ill. “You see a guy beginning to lose weight at work and you know what’s wrong, even if he doesn’t say anything,” says Trevor Rieb, 47. “And then you start to wonder: when is it going to happen to me?”
Rieb, who has worked on the power station’s turbine floor since 1979, has been diagnosed as suffering from ‘mild asbestosis’ “But it doesn’t feel mild to me”, he says. “It feels bloody sore”. He tells how he and his co-workers had to cut away the asbestos coverings on pipes, without using any protective equipment. They then used air hoses to blow the area clean, causing the deadly asbestos fibres to become airborne. “Sometimes I was so covered in dust I looked like the abominable snowman. If I’d known what it was I would have got the hell out of there”.
That was before the Occupational Safety Act was passed in 1987, introducing the first controls to industries using asbestos. This was a result of pressure from the International Labour Organisation convention on asbestos use.
Two years ago, Terry Hudson became the first worker to break the silence when he told the Mail & Guardian how working with asbestos had left him with “breath like crackling paper”. He is now living on a pension of R750 a month.
“No one stood by Terry”, says Rieb. “We were too afraid to admit there was a problem. Now I realise we need to stand together on this. We’ll never win by battling alone. The council attacks and wins because there is no unity. They can knock us down one by one unless it’s a collective struggle.”
It’s a sentiment that Lance Veotti of municipal worker’s union Samwu agrees with. He feels that the council is uncommitted to solving the problem, and accuses the task team of “foot dragging”. “I think there needs to be some sort of united industrial action on this”, he says.
The council appointed a task team to address the asbestos issue, and regular tests are carried out on workers by Dr Neil White of the repiratory clinic at Groote Schuur. But, in the words of team member Professor Barney de Villiers of Stellenbosch University, the team meets “only when a problem arises”. In the mean time, workers go about their lives in an atmosphere of quiet fear. “The poor would rather die a silent death”, says Rieb.
One very angry man is former employee Charles Kadalie, a 47-year old lay preacher. Speaking at the National Asbestos Summit held in November last year, he asked “how can you get your own employer to do medical screening? The system at present is to protect the employer — the attitude is that human life is expendable.”
Although most workers were fairly happy with the medical screening process, they feel Kadalie has some reason to be angry. One month after being passed by the council’s medical officer, Dr JR Wooley, he was diagnosed by a private doctor as having asbestosis.
Once mined extensively in the Northern Cape and Northern Province, asbestos is an excellent and economical insulator. It comes in three forms, crocidolite, amosite and chrysolite, which are commonly referred to as blue, brown and white asbestos respectively. Blue asbestos is considered the most dangerous, as it is the main cause of a fast acting cancer of the lung lining, Mesothelioma. Mining in South Africa has been scaled down; there is only one operational mine at Msauli, Mpumalanga, and directly across the border in Havelock, Swaziland.
Asbestos is in homes and schools throughout the country, and in the power station it is used for lagging pipes — it is mixed with other substances to create a thick insulating layer which is then packed on. It becomes dangerous when the material gets old, or buildings containing asbestos are demolished. This releases microscopic asbestos fibres into the air, which can then be breathed in. The fibres lodge in the lungs and cannot be removed.
This can cause a range of asbestos related diseases, especially lung cancer and Mesothelioma. Symptoms usually only appear 15 or more years after exposure — making it difficult to trace the causes. The asbestos summit recommended the banning of blue and brown asbestos and the phasing out of white asbestos.
This comes in the wake of the recent total ban on asbestos products in the European Union and United Kindom.
But for Dr Sophie Kisting of the Industrial Health Research Group, a group attached to the University of Cape Town with eighteen years of experience, it’s more an issue of empowerment through knowledge than an outright ban. She feels that the biggest problem is that people are not given adequate information to make informed decisions, and that trust has been eroded between management and workers through years of paternalistic treatment.
Cape Town’s street paper, The Big Issue, reports that white asbestos and concrete mixtures are being used in low cost government housing projects. The housing ministry insists that there is no danger, although many remain unconvinced.
Dr Kisting points out that there is no threshold safety level (in other words, asbestos can be dangerous even in minute quantities, especially if combined with other factors like smoking or stress). “People should be able to make an informed choice”, she says. “And if they choose to live in a house built using asbestos, they should be shown how to minimise the danger, by covering exposed areas with oil based paint and so on”.
She hopes for an eventual ban, but one brought about because of pressure from below rather than a decision at government level. She feels that it is important for affected communities and workers to have access to information and to mobilise themselves, rather than having to passively accept state policy.
According to the cancer association, 30% of cases of Mesothelioma are caused by environmental factors alone, rather than occupational ones. This has some worrying implications for the suburbs of Pinelands, Athlone and Langa, which are adjacent to the power station. South Africa is currently the global epicentre of asbestos related diseases, with about 50 000 people suffering from them.
But the dangers of asbestos have been known for a long time. Fibrosis of the lung caused by asbestos was first described in an autopsy in 1899, and in 1928 the South African Institute for Medical Research published a paper on the dangers of exposure to asbestos. Although laws were passed regulating asbestos use in Britain and other first world countries as early as 1931, this did not stop British mining companies — like Cape plc — from exploiting the lack of legislation in South Africa.
A group of South Africans who developed asbestosis as a result of Cape’s activities are currently involved in a legal battle for the right to seek compensation in British courts.
A Cape Times editorial in November 1997 found a “cover up by mining companies and medical authorities to prevent evidence of the link between asbestos fibres and fatal diseases being published”.
We got similar information from power station manager Wouter Roggen. “The link between asbestos and lung disease started to become apparent in the 1960s and early ‘70s, but it was suppressed by ‘vested interests’ at the time the power station was built in the ‘70s. We only started getting clear information from about 1985”. Although he sympathises with those who have been affected and pointed out he is also potentially a victim, he is not allowed to comment on the issue of compensation.
Council policy is currently to medically board any worker who loses 40% of his lung capacity, a level which many workers regard as to high. Workers seeking compensation are directed to workman’s compensation. The unions representing workers at Athlone as well as at Steenbras power station, Samwu and Imatu, are negotiating for the right to have affected workers redeployed to less physically demanding and stressful environments.
The council contracted an independent company, Environmental Science Services, to clear the power station of dangerous asbestos. This was completed late last year, to the relative satisfaction of the unions. Subsequent testing has shown the environment at the power station to be fairly safe, at least in terms of asbestos.
But for those already affected, it’s too little too late. They are doomed to die a slow and painful death. “It’s a lousy disease. I feel sick continuously because I’m scared out of my wits”, says Rieb. “I think I’ll die of fear before the disease kills me. We need to be compensated properly. You can’t put money on a life, but it can make things better.” He points to Losper, who received a one off payment of R17 000 from workman’s compensation, which he spent on a trip to Mecca. He will not receive anything more. “But I don’t blame him”, says Rieb. “If I got some money and blew it on an overseas trip, at least I could say I’ve been overseas in my life”

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