The air that I breathe

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If there were no bad people there would be no good lawyers

Charles Dickens 1

imageAsbestos is a generic term for a naturally occurring substance that includes six silicate minerals with distinctive elongated fibrous crystals. The soft flexible fibres are easily extruded into a tensile fluffy material, which is resistant to heat, electricity and chemical corrosion and the product became synonymous with insulation. It was often admixed with other building materials to increase strength, resilience and durability. Its intrinsic properties, commercial availability and economic viability created widespread demand for an extraordinary material. Indeed, by the turn of the twentieth century many countries were mining vast quantities of the mineral to satisfy burgeoning requirements. 24

Asbestos was used for embalming in ancient Egypt and additional archaeological evidence suggests it may have been prevalent during the Stone Age. The Roman historian, Pliny described slaves using animal bladders as respirators when handling the material and they often became sick or violently ill and died prematurely. Asbestos was also prevalent in many fabrics during the middle ages. Its heat resistance was observed and noted by Marco Polo in Mongolia during the late 13th century. On a brief visit to England in 1725, Benjamin Franklin carried a purse made from asbestos fibres. It was a souvenir from a Russian sojourn, where white asbestos was mined under the helm of Peter the Great. 512

In the early 1800s, the substance was woven into Italian banknotes to make them fireproof and indestructible. It was also used to insulate helmets and uniforms and afford additional protection to firemen in the Paris Fire Brigade around middle of the 19th century. During the industrial revolution asbestos was highly esteemed and its use increased exponentially. Its distinctive properties were ideal for insulating boilers, steam engines, electric generators, ovens, ancillary vessels and pipelines. This created an unprecedented demand for the material and during 1879 commercial mining commenced at the Jeffrey mine near Asbestos in the Canadian province of Quebec. It was followed by similar operations throughout Australia, Russia, South Africa and the United States and by the turn of the 20th century, global production exceeded 30,000 tons. 1316

During the early 1900s, many medical physicians expressed extreme concern regarding occupational dust lung diseases or fibroses and it was reinforced via alarming evidence from United Kingdom factory inspectors. A British Royal Commission into asbestos related fatalities recommended better ventilation and additional preventive measures. This was supported by statistical reports from the Prudential Insurance Company in the United States, which established a compelling correlation between premature death and asbestos exposure. Indeed, many underwriters increased premiums or refused to insure organisations. Meanwhile, the Johns Manville Corporation became a global leader in the manufacture and supply of asbestos containing products. 1720

The first compensation claim for an asbestos related illness was accepted in 1927 by the Massachusetts Industrial Accident Board and many more were filed over subsequent years. The disease was formally described as asbestosis by British pathologist William Cooke and it established a causal nexus to inhalation of the toxic dust. Subsequent civil actions against Johns Manville, Raybestos Manhattan and many other manufacturers usually resulted in out of court settlements, which were often protected via secrecy orders. However, documents from legal proceedings confirm executives often sanitised or redacted research reports and frequently suppressed information covering the toxicity of asbestos. 2127

During 1930, the Merewether report published by the British factory inspectorate provided substantive evidence of the associated risks with asbestos exposure. Additional medical research also confirmed the substance was carcinogenic. The Inspector of Factories and Shops in Western Australia reported on the potential health effects from asbestos exposure at a James Hardie manufacturing plant in Perth. Indeed, many public health officials and medical physicians mounted vigorous campaigns to prevent exposure but their valiant efforts were often vilified, disregarded or ignored. 2829

In the 1930s crocidolite deposits were discovered in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The Dreesen Standard was established by US public health authorities to restrict asbestos exposure. It was merely a symbolic threshold limit and much like a public transport timetable it informs people the trains or buses are running late. Meanwhile, the fecund and venal Lang Hancock opened a primitive asbestos crushing plant at Wittenoom in North West Australia and the operations were eventually acquired by CSR Limited in 1948. 3036

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Bernard Corden

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10 Replies to “The air that I breathe”

  1. This is an excellent retelling of the story of asbestos that should be required study in every occupational health and safety curriculum.

  2. This is an excellent retelling of the story of asbestos that should be required study in every occupational health and safety curriculum.

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