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The dust of death

The Dust of Death - that’s what they call asbestos. Many people have died in South Africa because of asbestos. And many more people will die.

Like gold and coal, asbestos is a mineral rock found in the earth. And like gold and coal, asbestos is big business in South Africa .

Asbestos is used to make many things. For example, asbestos is used to make cement, ceilings, floor tiles, batteries, pipes, heaters and motor car brakes. Altogether, over three thousand different things are made with asbestos .

After Russia and Canada, South Africa has the biggest asbestos mines. And South Africa is the only country with blue asbestos mines.

Blue asbestos is the most dangerous kind of asbestos.

Over 10 thousand workers work in the asbestos mines in the western Cape and the eastern Transvaal. And over 40 thousand workers work with asbestos in factories and on building sites.

These workers have dangerous jobs. If they breath in asbestos dust, they can get terrible lung diseases. But workers who work with asbestos are not the only people in danger.

People who live near asbestos mines are in danger because they may breath in asbestos dust. Families of asbestos workers are also in danger because workers often bring asbestos dust home · on their overalls and on their bodies.

And people far away from asbestos workers and mines are also in danger because so many things are made with asbestos. For example, classrooms with asbestos ceilings are a big danger to schoolchildren.

People get three types of lung diseases from asbestos. They get a sickness called asbestosis-this is like TB and the person will be short of breath. People sometimes die from asbestosis.

People also get cancer from asbestos. They get cancer inside their lungs. Or they get cancer on the outside of their lungs. When people get cancer of the lung, doctors can’t help them. These people will die a painful death.

A person does not need to breath a lot of asbestos dust to get sick. “One tiny, little piece ·of asbestos dust can kill you,” says Mr Barry Castleman. He is a scientist from America who visited South Africa last month.

Mr Castleman has fought against asbestos for many years. When he came to South Africa he was shocked. “South Africa’s asbestos laws are far behind other countries,” says Mr Castleman. “The law in Hitler’s Germany looked after workers better than the law today in South Africa.”

Mr Castleman visited some asbestos mines in South Africa.

“They didn’t let me go inside the mills where the dust is worst,” says Mr Castleman. ” But somebody told me workers come off shift each day with hair white with dust.”

Last year the government promised to make asbestos safer in South Africa . But Mr Castleman was not happy with the new promises. ” The government in Britain did the same things 15 years ago -but now they are much stricter,” says Mr Castleman.

Mr Castleman believes there are no safe ways to mine asbestos. And their are no safe ways to use asbestos. He believes we must leave asbestos where it belongs -in the ground. Many doctors in South Africa and other countries agree with Mr Castleman.

Nobody knows how many people have died from asbestos in South Africa. Or nobody knows how many people will die. When a person breathes in asbestos dust, they do not get sick right away. They will get sick many years later ­maybe 10 or 20 years later.

“In South Africa, many workers leave the mines after their contracts finish,” says Mr Castleman. ” They go back home -far away from good hospitals and clinics. When they get sick many years later, nobody will blame asbestos. They will think the worker has TB or some other sickness.”

Mr Castleman says the government and asbestos companies have known about the dangers of asbestos for a long time. But he says they have not told people about the real dangers of asbestos.

Doctors in South Africa have studied the dangers of asbestos. But some of these doctors never had the chance to tell people what they found out. Learn and Teach heard about a few of these stories:

  1. In 1950 Dr. Gerrit Schepers went to America to study asbestos. ” I don’t have a copy of the report I wrote in 1950,” says Dr Schepers, who now lives in America. “When I came back to South Africa, I gave my report to the government -but nobody has seen it again.

  2. Dr. Schepers told us about another doctor in South Africa who also wrote a report on asbestos in 1930. He said this report was also “lost”.

  3. ln 1962 another report said people who live near asbestos mines are in danger of getting lung diseases. This report was never printed .

  4. In 1978 a South African doctor went to a meeting in America. He wanted to tell people what he knew about asbestos. But his bosses did not let him talk. His report is still secret.

  5. A few years ago, an asbestos factory asked some doctors to do tests in their factories. But nobody knows what the doctors found out -except the bosses.

The bosses and the government have kept quiet for too long. If they had not kept quiet, who knows how many lives may have been saved?


The best way for workers to fight asbestos is for workers to stand together. When workers are organized and speak with one voice, the bosses and the government will listen.

The safest way to work with asbestos is not to work with asbestos at all. Other things can be used instead of asbestos. There are other less dangerous things that are just as good. For example, factories can make water pipes from plastic or metal instead of asbestos.

The next best is to make sure that the dust cannot escape and get to the workers. Machines or dusty places must be closed off in a space where workers cannot enter.

The next best is sucking away the dust before this gets to the workers. Special machines called fans or vacuum cleaners can suck the air away.

The next best is for asbestos workers to wear special clothing. Workers can wear masks, special overalls, goggles and so on. Special clothing helps -but it is best to take the dust away altogether.


Industrial Health Research Group Department of Sociology University of Cape Town Private Bag RONDEBOSCH 7700


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