South Africa was one of the major suppliers of asbestos to the world, having produced 97% of the world's crocidolite and 100% of the amosite and was the fifth-largest producer of chrysotile, accounting at one point for 3% of the value of South Africa's mineral exports.
However, this ‘miracle' mineral is a far cry from what the Greeks believed it to be, and its serious and life-threatening health hazards, in the form of mesothelioma and asbestosis, have had far-reaching and disastrous effects on not only South Africans, but also people exposed to the fibres from this mineral globally.
The final regulations to enforce the prohibition of the use of asbestos in South Africa were gazetted in March after decades of campaigning.
Asbestosis and pleural diseases primarily affect people who have worked with asbestos in mining, manufacturing, and building maintenance debris removal. This includes those who worked in mining and milling in the mining industry, in transporting and loading asbestos, by rail and through harbours, factory workers in asbestos products manufacture, such as pipes, building materials and brake linings, and those exposed to asbestos in power stations, locomotives, ships, boiler rooms, buildings and fire insulation, and, in some cases, carpentry and roofing activities.
South Africa reportedly has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world, with data suggesting that 400 to 500 patients are diagnosed with mesothelioma a year. Asbestos has left its death verdict on miners, workers and mining communities in South Africa - without any ‘miracle' to date to cure the related illnesses of this mineral.
Even in the 1960s, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Com-mission, asbestos-mining companies hindered the release of scientific research on the mineral. The Health and Human Rights project also indi- cated that the role of the private sector in human rights abuses was not appropriately investigated, and that the two industries which were guilty in this regard were the pharmaceuticals and the mining industries.
Not only having to contend with these illnesses, (which one may not be aware of until very late in life), it has also not been an easy battle for miners and communities in South Africa to get compensation from mining companies that previously mined asbestos.
On a positive note, in March this year, South Africa prohibited the use, processing or manufacturing of any asbestos or asbestos-containing products - a decision welcomed by many concerned organisations in this country, but questionably, too little, too late?
However, the general consensus, it appears, is that the decision taken by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism was amicable, in the midst of pressure and strong opposition from vested interests.
Such pressure included that of Zimbabwe's leading asbestos product manufacturer, Turnall Fibre Cement, which attempted to convince the South African government to drop a draft Bill proposing a total ban on The use of chrysotile. Turnall Fibre Cement believes the ban would have unprecedented effects on its export earnings, with exports to South Africa having earned the company R22-million in 2007.
The Asbestos Relief Trust (ART), which was set up in 2003, and the Kgalagadi Relief Trust (KRT), both of which evaluate claims and provide compensation for qualified claimants, in a media statement, indicated that the ban on the use of asbestos and asbestos-related materials was "well overdue."
Both trusts have indicated that government's focus should now be on environmental exposure in former mining areas, the rehabilitation of asbestos mine dumps, roads constructed with asbestos fibre, and schools and houses built with asbestos bricks.
THE MEDICAL TIME BOMB
Both trusts say that the adequate and timely compensation for asbestos victims remains a major challenge, particularly as the majority of claimants are from the poorest parts of the country. While victims who were occupationally exposed may claim modest compensation from the State, environmentally exposed claimants are reliant on the trusts only.
The ART has to date paid R127,5- million to 2 058 claimants, and the KRT has paid R19, 8-million to 433 claimants.
The University of Cape Town School of Health and Public Sciences' Professor Rodney Ehrlich, who has been involved in asbestos research for 25 years, says that communities in the former asbestos-mining areas, particularly in the Northern Cape, in areas such as Kuruman, Prieska and Koegas, and in places such as Penge and Polokwane, in Limpopo province, are heavily affected by asbestos- related diseases, as a result of mining in these areas.
"The burden of mesothelioma is particularly high in the mining industry in the Northern Cape, and includes those who also live or have lived in the province and have been exposed as a result of contamination of the area by asbestos waste, and the use of asbestos as a building material," says Ehrlich.
In 2002, Northern Cape MEC for Health Dipuo Peters made special reference to the effects of asbestos on the province, and said that those who place profits ahead of human life, and a worker's right to physical integrity, should at least be persuaded by an economic argument that suggests that work-related accidents, diseases and fatalities place a considerable burden on the competitiveness of the enterprise.
Very little is known of the impact of asbestos-mining in communities in Mpumalanga province, specifically in the Barberton area, and in Swaziland.
"The risk to the cohorts of former mining and asbestos products industry employees will last as long as they are alive. This is a result of the long time between the exposure and diagnosis of the diseases, which could possibly be decades," comments Ehrlich.
MINERS VS MINING COMPANIES
Companies involved in providing compensation include London-listed Cape plc, against which the case was fought in the UK on behalf of thousands of South Africans mainly residing in the Northern Cape, who worked in the company's mines and mills; and South African mining companies Gencor, the Griqualand Exploration & Finance Corporation and Msauli Asbes Beperk, situated in Msauli, the case against which was settled out of court and led to the creation of the ART.
A voluntary agreement was reached with the Kuruman Cape Blue Asbestos and Danielskuil Cape Blue Asbestos companies, which led to the creation of the KRT.
The ART's chairperson, Tina da Cruz, says that the road for asbestos sufferers in achieving private settlements has not been easy, with a lack of funding and existing legislation presenting challenges.
"There are a few small mines that we are aware of that do not have a fund similar to the ART to compensate individuals who were exposed to asbestos as a result of their operations. Some of these mines closed many years ago, and it is difficult to obtain money from them," says Da Cruz.
As part of the claims process, the ART and the KRT have dealt with about 13 000 people, of whom 54% do not meet the medical criteria to claim, 30% have asbestos-related diseases, and 16% are undergoing medical screening.
Of the 30% who have compensable asbestos-related diseases, 56% have been compensated and 6% have had their claims approved for payment, but payment has not been made, as a result of claimant inaction. Of the remaining 38%, 10% do not meet the administrative criteria to claim and 28% are in varying stages of the claim process.
Nelspruit occupational health specialist attorney Richard Spoor was quoted in Business Report as saying that even coal-miner Xstrata Coal, previously known as Duiker Exploration, which controlled and managed Wandrag Asbestos Mining Company's mines and mills in the Kuruman area (previously owned by the Lonhro group), has a legal and moral obli- gation to contribute to a fund to assist former miners, who were either dying or who would become ill because of exposure to asbestos dust and fibres.
Xstrata communications manager Songezo Zibi tells Mining Weekly that while the company has sympathy for those who are ill as a result of asbestos, its finding is that the shareholders of Xstrata have never owned or benefited from the operations in question.
"These operations were closed some 20 years before Xstrata was even formed and we believe any moral liability rests with those who [operated the mines]. Xstrata looked at this issue carefully when it was raised over five years ago and, as we [explained] to Spoor at that point, it is quite clear that the com- pany has no legal obligations in respect of Emerentia Asbestos and Wandrag Asbestos," says Zibi.
Western Cape Asbestos Removals director Louis Botha says that while regulations are in place to protect employees and the public, many companies are not properly informed regarding the legislation passed by government.
Having been involved in the construction business for about 40 years and in the removal of hazardous waste for almost a decade, and in support of the ban on asbestos, Botha is not sure just how long it is going to take to get rid of the mineral, as the entire country is covered with asbestos roofing sheets, for instance.
The rehabilitation of mines in the country is a rather expensive oper-ation, he indicates, and, "simply" explained, involves the removing of the affected top layer of the earth and then refilling it with clean and unpolluted soil.
One major challenge, he says, is the cost implication, related to the removal of asbestos from all proper- ties, and the further multimillion-rand claims of employees who may suffer or will suffer with asbestos-related diseases.
The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism indicates that communities are exposed to asbestos fibres in areas where asbestos was mined, and where abandoned mining structures, unrehabilitated tailings dams, ownerless mines are situated. Airborne fibres are also a result of asbestos spillage on roads, and from asbestos materials used for homes.
The Department of Minerals and Energy has a programme in place to deal with mine rehabilitation and the State is to provide funds for the rehabilitation of ownerless mines in South Africa.
STILL A THREAT
Da Cruz says that there is no known cure for asbestos-related illnesses and very little understanding by sufferers of how to manage the diseases. "In fact, there is a general lack of knowledge among South Africans about asbestos and the dangers of asbestos, which is a major challenge," she adds.
Ehrlich adds that all occupational diseases, including asbestos-related diseases, are underdiagnosed and underreported.
"Employers generally do not want to report such cases, and doctors may either not take on an occupational history or do not want to get involved in the paperwork that reporting for compensation pur- poses requires. Claimants also have to wait such a long time for their cases to be assessed. As a result, there is widespread disillusionment with the compensation system among all who come into contact with it," he says.
Further, former workers in rural areas, including mining areas, have poor access to the medical expertise or investigations required to make such a diagnosis. In general, Ehrlich believes that not much effort is being made to assist sufferers in South Africa. There is a general lack of support for occupational disease diagnostic facilities. The compensation system is inadequate, and many cases are undiagnosed or unreported.
This clearly supports the view of the ART, that the regulations passed by government do not address the issue of existing asbestos-related issues in South Africa.
Given the country's heavy involve- ment in asbestos mining, Ehrlich also believes that very little research has been done on the health impact of asbestos, particularly among black mining industry employees.
Further, a report recently released by the ART indicates that there are high illiteracy and unemployment rates in the poverty-stricken communities in which the majority of the claimants reside.
While legislation is in place, Da Cruz believes that education, the rehabilitation of the environment, and research on the medical aspects of asbestos and its effects on humans are some of the challenges to be faced.
The main risk now, it appears, is to people working with asbestos material in places such as power stations, ships, boiler rooms, heating plants, steam pipes, roofing repair and demolition areas, as well as those environmentally exposed in former mining areas.
It appears that, although much effort has been made by government to ban the use of asbestos in the country, to create an asbestos-free environment for all citizens, this mineral has led to detrimental and life-threatening consequences for not only individuals, but also communities far and wide in South Africa that will last not only for the lifetimes of current sufferers but for decades to come.