Deadly Fibres

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Review of 'Asbestos Blues', Jack McCulloch, James Currey £12.95

With the exception of cigarettes, asbestos is the most common carcinogen in the developed world. The fibre was once promoted as a 'wonder mineral'--crucial to many of the industrial processes and commodities developed after 1945. Asbestos fibre causes three major diseases--asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma --the last of which can occur with minimal exposure and has a latency period of up to 40 years and is incurable.

Although alternatives existed for the heat resistant properties of the mineral, asbestos was versatile and, most importantly, cheap--large companies mined the substance to be used in their own products. In South Africa racial segregation and later the apartheid state ensured a supply of cheap non-white labour. The conditions in the mines were appalling. The mining companies were able to ignore and, when necessary, collude with senior government officials to exempt themselves from mining legislation for the largely non-white workforce. As the author points out, 'Profits depended on the absence of trade unions to protect the interests of labour'. At the height of apartheid British-owned asbestos companies were returning high annual dividends to their shareholders.

Miners usually constructed their own makeshift huts in a hot and dusty environment. In spite of the danger of mine working there was often no medical care provided--miners died unnecessarily from accidents. Women and children were especially poorly paid--they did the dirtiest jobs and were most likely to suffer higher levels of exposure to asbestos fibre. In many cases workers could only be paid in kind or buy supplies from the company store. One manager boasted that the prices were so inflated they were getting the miners' labour for nothing. Miners and their families often suffered and died from malnutrition. In one large mine there was found to be 'no sanitation, no refuse facilities and no washing facilities' for non-white workers. However these were not the conditions that white mine workers experienced--they typically lived in modern houses with gardens, servants, and subsidised recreation facilities.

There was an increasing body of medical research from the 1930s, which is well documented in the book, concerning the health risks of asbestos fibre. However the major asbestos companies and senior officials in the South African government often suppressed these findings.Even after the risks were known the companies invested heavily in new mines and mills boosting production. The author asks how many lives might have been saved if available research not been suppressed and new research not been undermined.

By the mid-1970s the medical evidence was far less easy to ignore outside South Africa. For decades the industry kept quiet about the dangers of asbestos. Pressure from trade unions in Europe and litigation in the US led to a collapse in demand in 1977. The aftermath for South Africa has been an environmental disaster--large parts of the country are permanently hazardous. There are insufficient government funds available to clear up the abandoned mines, fibres from which are blown increasingly closer to major population centres.

The book is written in largely self-contained chapters that give the impression of an academic report--this tends to diminish the impact of some of the events. Some recollections of former miners and those who live in the mining communities would have been welcome--although the author does mention a group of ex-miners who recently fought successfully and got damages in the British courts. This is a well researched and clearly written survey of the asbestos industry in South Africa--and is a good account of how, under capitalism, people are ruthlessly exploited and sacrificed for profit.