History of Asbestos

Asbestos in Australia

The use of asbestos was widespread in Australia. It was mined in NSW from 1940 – 1979 at Baryulgil on the north coast, and at Barraba (Woodsreef) in the New England tablelands from 1918 – 1983, in WA’s Yampire Gorge, in the early 1930s to 1943, and in Wittenoom Gorge, from 1943 to 1966. It was also imported into Australia from overseas, mainly from South Africa.

In post World War 2 Australia, nearly every home, building and piece of equipment used in everyday life, may have contained asbestos.

Asbestos was manufactured into a variety of building products, asbestos cement flat sheet, asbestos cement corrugated roof sheeting [also commonly used for fencing], asbestos containing; carpet underlay, floor wall and roof tiles, floor linoleum, gaskets in stoves, wood and gas heaters; insulation in hot water boilers; roof insulation; lagging insulation around water and gas pipework and around boilers and hot water services; heater and stove flues; waterproof panelling under floor tiles/linoleum and behind wall tiles in wet areas; kitchens, bathroom, laundries and toilets, the list is almost endless! In the kitchen, asbestos containing ‘oven mitts’ and ‘asbestos’ potholders were the norm!

But it wasn’t just used in the building industry. Asbestos was used extensively in the industrial, commercial, manufacturing and automotive industries. There are thousands of kilometers of asbestos containing drinking water, irrigation and sewerage pipes, and over a million asbestos containing telecommunication pits spread throughout Australia. In the automotive industry, asbestos containing brakes, gaskets, insulation’s and sealants were part of almost every car, truck, bus, train, ship and airplane. Many commercial buildings contain air-conditioning plant and systems that contain asbestos; inside duct-work, in boilers or on the outside of pipe work as insulation.

You name it, virtually every facet of home life, and life in general in the 20th Century, would have involved asbestos. Unfortunately, people living in the 21st century will exist with the negative consequences of this ill – advised insatiable use of asbestos for many decades to come.

Asbestos was used in building materials in Australia up until the late 1980s. The manufacturing of asbestos was banned in Australia in 1983, but its use and importation was not totally banned in Australia until the 1st January 2004.

People have been, and continue to be, exposed to asbestos fibres, not only in their homes, and recreation pursuits, but also in their everyday work life!

Asbestos mining tailings piles
History of Asbestos

First Century AD: Roman historian Pliny notes that slaves wearing cloth sicken and die. He describes the use of respirators made from animal bladders.

1898: British Factory safety inspectors express concerns about the “evil effects” of asbestos dust.

1906: British Parliamentary Commission confirms first cases of asbestos deaths in factories, recommends better ventilation and other safety measures.

1911: Royal Commission into working conditions in gold mines in Australia reveals widespread lung disease. Ventilation laws introduced.

1918: Prudential Insurance Company in US produces an actuarial study showing premature death in the asbestos industry. Other companies begin increasing premiums and refusing insurance.

1926: First successful claim for compensation by a sick asbestos worker to the Massachusetts Industrial Accidents Board. Over the following three years several hundred further claims filed.

1927: Asbestos given its name.
1929: Johns Manville Corporation, the world’s largest asbestos miner/manufacturer served with 11 writs by asbestos victims. Claims settled out of court with secrecy order. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in the US finds that half the men working at Johns Manville plants for more than three years develop lung disease.

1930: British Home Office Survey finds widespread asbestos disease in UK factories.

1935: Inspector of Factories and Shops in Western Australia reports on the effect of asbestos dust on the lungs of workers in the James Hardie Factory in Perth.

1936: Lang Hancock ‘discovers’ the Wittenoom blue asbestos (crocidolite) deposits and later begins pick and shovel mining.

1938: CSR Limited send Senior Executive, MG King to the US, Canada, South Africa and Europe to study asbestos mining and manufacture. It is the start of regular contact between CSR and John Manville, including further overseas trips between 1947 and 1952. US adopt a “safe” dust limit of 176 particles of asbestos per cubic centimetre in the workplace. German researchers identify six cancer deaths among asbestos textile works. Later animal studies confirm asbestos dust kills mice.

1939: Western Australian Commissioner of Public Health and Chief Inspector of Factories find respiratory disorders among James Hardie workers.

1940: Hancock begins mining at Wittenoom. Plant opens in 1943 and CSR takes over in 1948.

1943: Saranac Laboratory in New York confirms the link between asbestos and cancer. John Manville suppresses the report. A report on an asbestos mill at Zeehan in Tasmania (owned and operated by a CSR subsidiary) says that asbestos dust is a health hazard, and discusses methods of eliminating it.

1944: First warning of asbestos dust at Wittenoom—the WA Assistant State Mining Engineer reports on the dangers of dust being generated. Mines Inspector Adams reports on the “dust menace” at Wittenoom and discusses the need to reduce dust levels.

1946: Known asbestos death toll reaches 235 in Britain, 16 in France and 30 in Italy. The first case of asbestosis at Wittenoom occurred, although it was not conclusively diagnosed until much later. Mines Department Inspector Adams describes dust conditions at Wittenoom as “terrific”.

1948: Dr. Eric Saint tells Wittenoom mine management that asbestos is extremely dangerous, and that men exposed would contract chest disease inside six months. He writes to the Public Health Department in Perth that the mine will produce the greatest crop of asbestosis the world as ever seen. Over the following three years, dust levels at the mine and mills are regularly monitored at six to eight times “safe” levels. Further warnings are given to the mine management. No improvement in conditions is noted.

1950: WA Commissioner for Public Health report to his Minister that “Asbestos dust, If inhaled, constitutes a very grave risk and is, if anything, worse than silicosis”. State Mining Engineer reports insufficient attention to safety regulations and ventilation at Wittenoom.

1951: WA has adopted a “safe” dust limit of 176 particles per cc. Wittenoom readings continually off the scale at 1000 particles. Mines and Health Department take no action apart from issuing further warnings. Commissioner for Public Health writes to the Under Secretary for Mines that “The hazard
from asbestos is considerable greater than that from silica…we have reason to believe that attention to this aspect of mining operations at Wittenoom has been inadequate in the past”.

1954: Mines Inspector Ibbotson describes conditions at Wittenoom as a “disgrace”. The following year he threatens to close the mine.

1955: Dr. Richard Doll in UK produces the most comprehensive survey to date linking asbestos dust to lung disease.

1959: WA Health Department Official Dr. James McNulty discovers six cases of lung damages among Wittenoom workers. He warns the mine manager, and writes the first of a series of warnings.

1960: Wagner paper published a “new” disease, mesothelioma (fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs discovered among people exposed to asbestos in South Africa. Annual report of WA Commissioner for Public Health says working at Wittenoom is thirty times more dangerous than other mining.

1961: Britain cuts maximum exposure level of asbestos in the workplace from 175 to 5 particles per cubic centimetre. First case of mesothelioma detected among ex-Wittenoom workers. Man dies.

1961-1965: More than 100 cases of lung disease among Wittenoom workers and ex-workers—more than for all other mines in Western Australia.

1965: Local council warned that the tonnes of asbestos tailings being spread around Wittenoom could even threaten tourists.

1966: Commonwealth Health Department is highly critical of dust at the mine and the mill. CSR closes the mine two weeks later.

1970: Building unions at workplaces across Australia commences industrial action to ban the use of asbestos. Without unions there would be no ban on asbestos importation and exportation.

1973: Wittenoom toll reaches 175. 27 men now known to have died.

1974: First public warning of the dangers of blue asbestos. Bulletin Magazine cover story, “Is This Killer in Your Home?”

1977: Comelius Maas becomes the first mesothelioma victim to sue the CSR subsidiary that ran the mine. He dies before the case gets to court.

1979 – 1981: Union members take strike action about health and safety—including the carcinogenic impact of working with Coke Ovens in Wollongong and the asbestos in Melbourne’s Blue Harris Trains.

1988: First victories in court for Wittenoom mesothelioma victims. Judge rules CSR acted with “continuing, conscious and contumelious” disregard for it’s workers’ safety.

1989: Wittenoom tolls tops 500. National Health and Medical Research Council predicts the final toll will be 2,000.

1992: The Asbestos Disease Support Society founded in Queensland by Shirley White.

1998: ADFA played a major role in winning changes to NSW Laws regarding dust diseases which benefitted our members. The laws were a first for Australia.

2001: Unions continue their efforts to make James Hardie accountable for its failure to acknowledge the damage to workers’ health and obligations to compensate workers affected by asbestos-related disease. James Hardie establishes the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation.

2004: Asbestos finally banned in workplaces after a long-running union campaign and work with asbestos victims to make manufacturer James Hardie pay compensation.

2005: James Hardie and the NSW Government sign historic agreement, providing $4.5 billion dollars in funding for Australia’s asbestos victims.

2008: Department of Environment and Conservation subsequently classified Wittenoon as a contaminated site under the Contaminated Sites Act 2003 on 28 January 2008.

2009: ABC Journalist Matt Peacock’s Book “Killer Company—James Hardie Exposed” is released.

2010: NSW asbestos victims to get Federal compensation in form of loan so that asbestos victims & families continue to be compensated.

2011: Insidious danger in the wake of deluge from Cyclone Yasi in QLD. Hazard alert for thousands of workers cleaning up debris of fibro homes.

2012: High court of Australia has found seven Directors of the James Hardie group breached duties by approving of misleading statements released to the stock exchange. ABC broadcast “Devil’s Dust”, a documentary on asbestos-related diseases, following the investigative journalist Matt Peacock.