Blue killer unchecked in toxic SA towns

2012-08-09 11:11

Death knows the small town of Prieska all too well.

A poisonous legacy of South Africa's years as a global blue asbestos hub, the Grim Reaper has snaked through here for decades, wiping out families and striking down neighbours with deadly precision.

"In most of the houses in our street, there is someone who has died of asbestosis or mesothelioma," said Chris Julius, 58, who was diagnosed with asbestos cancer three months after his mother-in-law passed away next door.

A former teacher, Julius never worked at the town's mill or in the nearby hills where mining started in the late 1800s along rich deposits known as the country's "asbestos mountains" that run along the vast Northern Cape.

But he has mesothelioma, an aggressive lung cancer whose diagnosis is a death sentence.

"It felt like I was going to the electric chair," said Julius, who lives 100 metres (yards) from where the now-demolished mill once spat dust over the town.

"I still feel the same. I live from one day to the next. I can't really plan. It's very difficult for me to say goodbye, I can't even discuss it with my wife. For her, it's just as emotional an issue."

Locals were once pitted against mining firms in David and Goliath-style class action battles which were settled about a decade ago.

Yet nearly one in three homes is still contaminated, according to government statistics.

Environmental scientist Rob Jones estimates asbestos exposure is killing up to 52 people a year in the Northern Cape, while nearly 90 percent of 36 communities he surveyed had one or more sites ranked as severe risk.

"This is really a national environmental emergency that should be dealt with. It is analogous to Libby, Montana in the US and Wittenoom, Australia," said Jones, who has studied contamination levels for the state.

Wittenoom was shut down by Australian authorities in 1966 and Libby has received millions of dollars for rehabilitation.

Yet, while South Africa once produced 98 percent of the world's blue asbestos, the government has yet to act with the same urgency for its dozens of toxic communities.

The older generation in Prieska tells of playing obliviously on soft dumps as children, with no warnings from mine bosses or authorities. Documented accounts point to fibres being dusted off fruit picked from trees.

While still possible to stumble across a pile of fibres lying in the open, those days are over.

But asbestos is a patient killer: it can lie dormant for decades.

"Imagine walking along a dirt road that is contaminated with asbestos fibres and a vehicle drives past. The dust that you inhale is full of microscopic asbestos fibres," explained Jones.

"The same scenario applies to sweeping the garden, house, working in the garden, etc. The exposures are almost constant."

On the wall of a homely cafe, not too far from where the old mill lay, is a black-and-white photograph which shows a giant dust cloud above the tiny settlement.

It is an image that haunts doctor Deon Smith who moved to the area 28 years ago.

"We see about 10 cases a year, new cases of mesothelioma," he told AFP.

"It has a very, very poor prognosis," he said. "There's no cure."

Mesothelioma does not discriminate. It targets poor locals who never worked on the mines, to former mill bosses and entire households.

One such family are the Cilentos. Only two siblings are still alive after having watched their parents, two brothers and two sisters die.

Wearing a hoop earring and Jimi Hendrix t-shirt, Nicholas lives with a permanent oxygen tube piped into his nose and can only walk a few steps before having to rest.

"I knew I am going to get sick but I didn't expect it to be permanent. I'm suffering a lot; I didn't know I'll be suffering so much. I learned to accept it, I mean there is nothing else I can do," the gaunt 60-year-old told AFP.

"All the people are talking about this sickness and why is the government not doing anything," he added.

In June, the Department of Environmental Affairs said nearly 5 000 out of some 23 000 households and 400 kilometres of road surfaces were polluted in the Northern Cape. Out of 45 schools surveyed, 26 were affected including four in Prieska.

Rehabilitation is estimated at R249 000 per housing plot and R1.2 million per square kilometre of contaminated roads.

"It is taking some time because the remediation activities involve different stakeholders and at this moment the action plan is being finalised," said spokeswoman Roopa Singh.

For the sick, the town's legal settlement made no provision for latent illness and the government does not pay compensation.

Locals largely do not qualify for trusts set up for other mines, such as the Asbestos Relief Trust which paid out 3,555 claims by March.

"Rehabilitation is crucial because someone exposed today may only get an asbestos related disease say 40 years later," said Jim te Water Naude, a doctor at the trust.

"The most likely to suffer are children and those exposed environmentally."

With the companies long gone, the buck now stops with the state which is accused of "paralysis by analysis".

"Other than study the problem, no real efforts have been initiated to date (to my knowledge)," said Jones.

"Asbestos does not rot; it never goes away on its own. It is only safe when it is completely removed from the potential of human disturbance," he warned.

  • harold.parsons.37 - 2012-08-09 11:29

    Yes I was diagnosed with malignant mesathelioma three months ago I have already had two ops which are very painful. What is shocking is the lack of information to the general public about this dangerous material and how it must be handeled. I was exposed to this lethal material 30 years ago and that is how long it takes to show.

      phae.rayden - 2012-08-09 11:49

      Sorry to hear you are one of the victims of this horrible contaminant. Our country is a sad reflection of one that refuses to clean up after itself, especially in the mining industry. Grab the money and run, and its still being allowed to continue today. All the best for the tough road ahead.

      bernpm - 2012-08-09 12:34

      .....and the mining department is still issuing a permit in wetlands in KZN and still considering A permit for Shell to start fracking in the Karoo. Mining bosses have deep pockets to help "convince" civil servants.

      phae.rayden - 2012-08-09 12:40

      I am sorely tempted to chain myself to a shrub or sheep to stop fraking in the Karoo. Under no circumstances can it be allowed to happen.

      bless.boswell - 2012-08-09 13:32

      Any suggestions on how it can be stopped? I have seen some documentation detailing how "everything will be restored to former pristine beauty" when contract complete. Is that all lies?

  • judith.taylor.56 - 2012-08-09 14:10

    This is only one of the many abuses of communities that, through inaction, government is condoning. I am tired of hearing "We don't have funds". The bottom line is that mining companies and the government are committing genocide with impunity throughout South Africa

  • J.Stephen.Whiteley - 2012-08-09 14:26

    Two minerals that were best left under ground: asbestos and gold. Although gold has been put back under ground, expensively cast in bars and insured in vaults

      bernard.ingram - 2012-08-09 15:46

      Huh? Everyone loves gold, but how many people love asbestos?

  • sisa.mtwana - 2012-08-09 15:06

    Any house or building in Europe find to have any kind of asbestos is close down until asbestos is fully removed from that house/building. It is also illegal to house/rent a property that have asbestos in it. The government have known about this for a long time, Even during Declerk's government they now about this. Most of the roofs in the townships were made of this material. Please can someone do something about this.

      bernard.ingram - 2012-08-09 15:48

      Not only township roofs. Lying...

      sisa.mtwana - 2012-08-09 16:00

      Never said township roofs only. Read fool.

      bernard.ingram - 2012-08-09 16:30

      In future don't comment so one sided, it makes you look like a complete idiot. It's like are insinuating only black people are affected by asbestos roofs. Utter garbage....idiot.

      sisa.mtwana - 2012-08-09 17:17

      Is that your apology you racist fool. Course I said The government know about this for a long time or Declerk's government knew about this or most of the roofs in the townships. The township bit was to tell those people in government that even their own people are in the same bout and something have to be done about this.The European bit was to say look what other countries are doing right. In future I will comment where I see the injustice is being done to anyone be white or black.

      gail.hayesbean - 2012-08-09 18:10

      Our house had an asbestos roof as well when I was a child. My sympathies to all those living in the environment where it was brought to the surface and has like nuclear waste contaminated the very air one breathes. Is gold itself likely to cause health issues or is it the byproducts used to extract it that result in environmental waste which we have only recently been made aware of?

      bernard.ingram - 2012-08-09 18:24

      There we go. The idiot calling me a racist when the dumb fool is one itself. Asbestos roofs were common throughout SA and the world. White, black, coloured, name it, the all had asbestos roofs. But the ignorant choose to concentrate on his own race only. Shows the mentality of a naive child. No researching the facts, just blasting away like an uncontrollable canon. Shame, in an unrealistic way, I feel for your lack of intelligence.

      bernard.ingram - 2012-08-09 18:26

      De Klerk, not Declerk... In future I will write Nandela, not Mandela, ok?

      bernard.ingram - 2012-08-09 18:28

      I do not and will; never apologise to racists like you...

      bernard.ingram - 2012-08-09 18:30

      Any house or building in Europe FOUND to have any kind of asbestos is CLOSED down... Not all asbestos is bad. It's only one kind. Again, you fail with your baseless argument. Sheep.

      bernard.ingram - 2012-08-10 02:38

      uneducated fool!

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