Ben Hills

Twenty years ago it was rarer than leprosy. Doctors could graduate and practise all their lives without seeing a single case of mesothelioma. Today Australia is in the middle of an epidemic of this strange and terrible man-made cancer – in fact we have the second highest incidence of it in the world, after South Africa.

It has killed more people than AIDS, yet it gets only a tiny fraction of the media coverage, only a few per cent of the research funds. At last count, 2,015 people had been registered dead or dying of the disease, and cases are being reported at the rate of almost one a day. By the end of the decade, this and other asbestos-related diseases will have claimed 16,000 Australian lives.

And there is no end in sight. Thousands of people have already been”infected” with invisible hairs of asbestos floating in the air which are the only known cause of this cancer of the lining of the lung, and (more rarely)the abdomen. These tiny time bombs can take 30, 40 or 50 years to explode into cancer. There is no cure – only morphine and oxygen to ease the final agony which has been described as like having your lungs filled with wet concrete. Half the victims are dead within nine months of diagnosis.

The link between asbestos and mesothelioma was only established 30 years ago in South Africa, but the deadly dangers of the fibrous fireproof mineral had been known since Biblical times. Asbestosis – the progressive and poten tially fatal clogging of the airways of the lungs with fibres – was named in the 1920s. In the 1950s the link between asbestos and other cancers, cancers of the lung and the digestive tract, were proved. But mesothelioma, the widow-maker as its victims know it, has turned out to be far more virulent. It is mainly associated with blue asbestos, the leaner and meaner of the three types of asbestos. Crocidolite, as it is known scientifically, is only found in two places on Earth – southern Africa, and in the Hamersley Ranges of Western Australia where a mine operated until the 1970s at a place called Wittenoom.

The victims of mesothelioma include the miners, many hundreds of whom will eventually be stricken by the disease. They include people from the shipping and transport industries – waterside workers in particular – who carted the stuff, often in dusty jute sacks.

Plumbers, electricians and fitters who used asbestos for insulation are high on the risk list. Then you have the so-called bystander victims – in the United States a tollgate operator contracted mesothelioma from breathing in the dust from asbestos-lined brakes. At Wittenoom, several children who played in the asbestos tailings are dead. In Melbourne, a woman contracted it from shaking out and washing her husband’s work clothes.

Notice one thing. These are all, or at least were then, male-dominated occupations. Mesothelioma is a male disease. Its victims are the men who die, and the women and children they leave, often with little or no compensation for the decades cut from their married lives by the negligence of the asbestos suppliers and employers.

The most the family of, say, an Australia Post linesman or a Navy fitter dying of mesothelioma can get by way of lump sum compensation is capped by law at $120,000. Take the employer to court for negligence, and a typical payout(posthumous, because most people are dead before the courts can grind into action) is $200,000. Families of many victims are condemned to poverty on top of grief and loneliness.

Much has been written about the corporate conspiracy to conceal the dangers of asbestos – the “outrageous misconduct” of the asbestos industry over the past 50 years, as one book calls it. This is about three of the forgotten victims of this terrible epidemic, the asbestos widows.

The Winemaker

It started off as a hobby … then it just devoured him.” Janet Roberts is pottering about the kitchen of the brick farmhouse, set among the green-flushed vines of the Hunter Valley. It doesn’t register for a few seconds just what she has said.

We had been talking about the 1960s when her husband, Jim, decided he had had enough of outback life and came to settle with his bride on some family land at Belbourie – a pretty spot, whose Aboriginal name means “creek with native oak trees on the banks”.

Jim had a footloose past. He had signed up with the Navy in 1942 when he was just 18, and saw action in the Pacific, New Guinea, the Solomons and the Philippines. When he was demobbed, he studied for a bachelor of science degree in geology, then went to work in the Kimberleys, and on the Wapet offshore oil rigs off the West Australian coast.

Farming was not his forte. They tried dairy cattle. Then sheep. Then beef cattle. Then grapes … that was the hobby that became his obsession. Few Australian wine buffs have not delighted over the years in these highly individual wines with eccentric names like Belah Bungan, Becan and Barramundi.

It began as a hobby. It became a business. And it did devour Jim Roberts… though not in quite the way he expected.

In the spring of 1985, as the buds burst along the telegraph lines of vines, he began to have pains down the right side of his body. That was unusual for Jim Roberts – he was as fit as the proverbial Mallee bull, a boxer in his younger days, a lifesaver at Terrigal who once made the Australian Olympic swimming squad. Hardly a day’s illness in his life.

“The doctor diagnosed it as arthritis,” says Janet. “He told Jim, ‘You’re just getting old’ and told him to take some Panadol. But it didn’t get better.”

In February the following year Jim Roberts was finally persuaded to have some x-rays taken. “The doctor threw the x-rays down on the table and said, ‘You have cancer; nothing can be done’. Jim said this was rubbish and they had an almighty argument. But when I looked at the x-rays my heart just sank into my boots – one lung was completely solid with the tumour.”

It was the widow-maker, mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused by asbestos.

“From that moment on Jim became morose, he retired into himself and refused to talk about it. He became a hermit in his own house,” recalls Janet.

Almost a year went by, with Jim Roberts’s condition slowly worsening, when they read of a court victory in Melbourne – the first case in Australia where a mesothelioma victim had successfully sued the company that exposed him to asbestos. A dying former miner by the name of Klaus Rabenault had won $600,000- including punitive damages – against the mining giant CSR Ltd.

Jim and Janet Roberts decided to sue. But who?

There was no doubt that he had been exposed to asbestos during his Navy service – by then nearly 300 former sailors had applied for pensions for asbestos-related diseases. But as the lawyers examined the case they came up with another bizarre explanation.

Until a few years ago, wine-makers in the Hunter – and around the world, for that matter – used filter pads made of asbestos to filter the young wine of its sediment. “I still have one of the bags here,” says Janet Roberts. “I remember quite clearly that when we opened a fresh packet, the dust used to fly around … I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”

In the event, when the case came to court, the Commonwealth and the distributor of the wine filter agreed to split the damages. But not before a fight. In May 1987, the Supreme Court, with two QCs in attendance, travelled to the Roberts’ house in the Hunter, and Jim was propped up in bed in the lounge room, doped with morphine, to make a videotaped deposition.

A fortnight later, at the age of 63, Jim Roberts was dead.

“The compensation helps, but how can you be compensated for dying like a dog. It’s too late for Jim, but I just have to go on like a beast of burden. I’m alone now, except when the kids come to stay … friends don’t want you around – they think you’ll take their husbands.”

Not only that, but Janet and her children now have the threat of asbestos disease in the back of their minds. Says daughter Ruth, who has interviewed about 120 of her father’s former shipmates on HMAS Australia (including two or three who have asbestos disease): “We used to help out with the filters when the harvest was on – it’s of enormous concern to us. It (mesothelioma) can develop 40 years later … we have this spectre hanging over us.”

The Boss

It was some time in the mid-1970s and Ted Heath was touring asbestos plants in North America – one of the regular trips he made during his nine years as chief executive of the James Hardie group, Australia’s biggest asbestos manufacturer. With him was his wife Patricia.

It was at the factory in Atlanta, Georgia, operated by the Johns Manville company – then the largest asbestos company in the world – that Ted Heath remarked on how free of dust the buildings appeared to be. “He said, ‘Oh, God, it’s so clean. Their safety regulations are so stringent – they bury all their waste’,” recalls his widow.

It was on that trip, Patricia Heath believes, that her husband saw the light. After nearly 40 years working for the Hardie group “I think he came to the conclusion that there was no way you could make it (asbestos) a safe product. He told John Reid he would not stand up and tell the men it was a safe product … I think that was one of the things behind him leaving.”

John Reid was the long-serving chairman of the Hardie company (it changed its name from James Hardie Asbestos Ltd to James Hardie Industries in the late 1970s, quietly lowering the “Asbestos” from the wall of its Sydney corporate headquarters) and in 1978 he accepted Ted Heath’s retirement at the surprisingly young age of 53.’

Four years later, he would be dead – and Patricia Heath has no doubt the asbestos he worked with most of his life contributed to his death. It was diagnosed as a massive heart attack, but Mrs Heath’s carefully-preserved copy of the death certificate also lists pulmonary oedema, emphysema and pleural fibrous bony plaques – lung damage that can be caused by inhaling asbestos fibres.

She is sitting in the cliff-top home in North Sydney where she now lives alone. The kids, their three daughters, have long since left home, and her husband has been in his grave for eight years now, struck down “just as we were getting to that stage in life when we were hoping to see a lot more of each other … travel to Europe, do all those things”.

They were childhood sweethearts – they lived in the same street in Parramatta – and in 1939, aged 14, young Ted Heath started work at the Hardie factory in Parramatta. He studied by night, earned an industrial chemistry degree, and by 1952 when they married, was promoted to be in charge of the company’s laboratory.

In spite of his qualifications, Patricia Heath says her husband remained ignorant of the dangers of asbestos for many years. “When they were kids in the factory they just used to throw handfuls of it around. They were told it was safe because it was an inert mineral – the same rubbish the Navy is still putting out.” (The interview was not long after Rear Admiral D.G.Holthouse, Assistant Chief of Naval Staff, reassured his men that asbestos was so safe it could be touched or eaten.)

Ted Heath became something of a golden-haired boy at Hardie’s. When he was 22, he was sent on a nine-month mission to the United States – ironically, an unsuccessful assignment to try to find an alternative to asbestos. At the age of 28 he was made national manager in charge of pipe sales, and at 44 he became chief executive officer.

“He was not a fool – he knew people were getting asbestosis and mesothelioma, and he used to have to send one of his people around to see the families. Right from the early ’70s they were paying out compensation.

“But I don’t believe he knew the full story of just how dangerous it is. It was known only to a few people at the top and the knowledge did not trickle down. The whole industry world-wide was a club where they all knew each other and kept the knowledge to themselves.”

Not long before he left, Ted Heath volunteered to be the first to have a chest x-ray, a new program the company was introducing. He wanted to convince the men it was quite safe. Instead, it showed up pale patches of calcification on his lungs.

Four years later, the man who spent most of his life telling people asbestos was a safe and useful product was killed by it. While his widow mourned, the company he quite literally gave his life to continued to manufacture asbestos products for several more years.

The Battler

I can see him now, walking in the door when he came home from work. He had dark hair and a bushy moustache in those days and they were just white with the asbestos dust. I didn’t think anything of it … I used to throw my arms around him and give him a kiss and a cuddle.”

Donald Campbell worked just a few minutes down the road at the old James Hardie asbestos-insulation factory in Parramatta. He lacked the enterprise, or the luck, of Ted Heath – for 24 years he worked as a fitter and turner on the machines that turned the crude asbestos fibre into lagging to insulate the engine rooms and power stations of industrial Australia.

But, in the end, the dust was to get them both – boss and battler.

The factory has long since closed down, and Donald Campbell has been dead, prematurely, of asbestos-related cancer, since July last year. But the legacy of the deadly dust he carried home every night for the 24 years he worked there lives on.

Now his widow, Meg, has been told that she, too, has pleural plaques -abnormal patches on her lungs that may be the precursors of crippling asbestos disease. Every few months she has x-rays, and every time she dreads what the doctors may discover.

“There is only one place I could have picked it up,” says Meg Campbell. “And that’s from the stuff he brought home on him – in his hair, in his moustache, and on his overalls. I used to shake them out before I put them in the washing machine, and they were always full of dust.”

Meg Campbell is alone now – apart from Misty the cat – in her bungalow in North Dandenong. There were fields there when she and Donald first saw the block in 1955. He spent two years saving and building the house in which they were to live all their married lives and raise their three children … and where they hoped to spend their retirement together.

Like most of the houses around here, it was built of asbestos, James Hardie’fibro’. Cream-painted aluminium siding now hides the sheets. “I’m told it’s safe enough unless you go sawing it up … it was the dust in the factory that was the problem. He told me it was everywhere – even when they put in dust collectors, Don said they never worked.”

Even before he left the factory in 1974 (he was then 45) Don Campbell knew he had been “dusted” as they used to call it – his lungs had been permanently and progressively scarred by the asbestos dust. He went to the Dust Diseases Board and his widow was later to be offered a princely pension of $48 a fortnight.

“They knew they were getting dusted, because Don always used to be talking about people who had to take sick leave or retire on invalid pensions. But no-one warned them how dangerous it really was. They didn’t understand. They weren’t educated about it.”

When he left the factory, Don Campbell took another job as a brake fitter, but his health was progressively breaking down. He could only do light work, he found it increasingly difficult to breathe – when he and Meg went on a holiday to Queensland’s beautiful Blackall Range, they had to calculate the length of each bushwalk to make sure Don could make it.

Ironically, it was Meg who first raised the alarm. She had been having a routine x-ray for a heart murmur when her doctor said, “There’s something funny here – have you cracked a rib?” When she said no, he had another look at the plate, and asked her whether she had ever been exposed to asbestos.

“I said yes, but I had no idea that you could get an asbestos disease from exposure like that – just from his hair, from his overalls. I was really unimpressed about that, I can tell you.”

By now, Don was going downhill rapidly. He had a heart attack, then triple-bypass surgery, and finally a severe bout of pneumonia. By last autumn doctors had discovered cancer – it was eventually to be diagnosed at autopsy as an asbestos-linked adenocarcinoma of the lung – and his lawyers sought an expedited hearing of the claim he had lodged against the Hardie company.

Don Campbell gave evidence lying on a banana lounge in the Supreme Court, and the company eventually agreed to a settlement. Two months later, at the age of 60, he was dead.

“I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this. I’ve got my mother’s heart murmur, and now my husband’s dusting … all I can do is take it as it comes I suppose,” says his widow.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 3 November 1990
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 73
1. Winemaker Jim Roberts launching a new vintage.
2. Widow Janet at the graveside in Lochinvar cemetery … the Navy that contributed to his death paid for the tombstone.
3. The Supreme Court convenes at Jim Roberts’s bedside.