Rash of Asbesto-Related Ills Hit Australia


"It's a death sentence, but I am hanging on the best I can to fight it," George Blackman said in a rasping voice.

The 73-year-old former mechanic from Sydney is one of thousands of Australians suffering from mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the lungs, heart and abdomen caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.

Health experts say Australia, which already has the world's highest mesothelioma rate, faces a rising tide of asbestos-related deaths that will not peak until the first decade of the next century.

"It's an epidemic, but it's a long, slow epidemic," said David Ferguson, one of the country's leading experts on diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.

"The epidemic will run into the next century as the incubation period after exposure is somewhere between 16 and 50 years. We are only now seeing the first victims of the widespread use of asbestos in Australia in the '50s."

Last August, Sydney's main street came to a standstill as thousands paid tribute to the late Sir David Martin, former governor of New South Wales, who died of mesothelioma contracted during 40 years aboard asbestos-contaminated ships.

How many will die? Nobody knows exactly, but estimates range from a few thousand to more than 30,000.

Dr. James Leigh of the Australian Mesothelioma Register said 1,900 people have been diagnosed in the last 10 years, and the incidence of the disease is growing rapidly.

Robert Vojakovic, president of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia, says he is receiving at least 10 calls a week from people suffering some form of asbestos-related illness.

"By the year 2010 we will have 30,000 people at least suffering some form of asbestos-related cancer in Australia, from all walks of life," said Vojakovic.

Vojakovic predicts 5,000 miners and residents of Australia's most infamous asbestos mining town, Wittenoom, about 850 miles north of Perth, in Western Australia, will contract mesothelioma in the next 25 years.

Before the mine closed in 1966 an estimated 20,000 men, women and children worked and lived in the scruffy collection of battered houses that made up the desert town.

To date some $37 million has been paid to 322 Wittenoom miners by CSR Ltd., owner of the Midalco company which ran the mine, and CSR's state government insurer. There are 300 cases pending.

Accurate predictions of how many Australians will contract asbestos-related cancers are difficult because of widespread use of the deadly substance in the 1950s and '60s.

"Over the years, millions of people in many occupations have been exposed to the asbestos fibers which cause it (mesothelioma) and some industries have had an inordinate number of cases," said Ferguson. "Blue asbestos was used in an estimated 3,000 Australian products."

A survey of houses in Canberra in 1988 revealed 2,000 had an asbestos solution sprayed into their attics between 1968 and 1978 for insulation. Only 50 have been "cleaned."

The Sydney Morning Herald reported in August that the Australian Navy knew in 1944 that some of its ships contained dangerously high levels of asbestos dust.

Yet the Navy told a federal parliamentary committee this year that it was not aware of the dangers of asbestos until the mid-1960s, when it started taking protective measures.

The Naval Assn., which represents former sailors, says about 1,000 ex-sailors are suffering from asbestos-related illnesses. Three hundred have claimed compensation.

Former Capt. Rex Cray, a navy doctor for more than 20 years and director of naval medical services, wrote to the Herald newspaper: "My recollection is that we knew quite a deal about the dangers of asbestos back in 1961 when I joined."

He said the reason he was speaking out now because "my interest is natural justice for fellow sailors. I have never believed in cover-ups, and this is beginning to smell like one."

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