The Fight of Their Lives

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Carried on the winds that blow across the rocky outback of South Africa, it invaded human tissue like a sci-fi alien. When a mining town doctor, Andre Pickard, warned 60 years ago that asbestos dust was killing people, he was ignored because the fire-resistant material was vital to the World War II effort. After the war the mining continued for three more decades, an environmental calamity that continues to take its toll here.

But with a ruling last month by the House of Lords that 3,000 South African victims of asbestos-related diseases can sue in Britain for compensation against a U.K.-based asbestos mining company, Cape PLC, the cost of years of human suffering may finally be assessed. Asbestos a fibrous silicate found in certain types of rock strata was being mined more than 100 years ago in South Africa, which was one of the world's major sources of crocidolite or blue asbestos. It was widely used in heat-resistant insulation materials, textiles, missile and jet parts, caulking compounds and paints and in friction applications such as brake linings. By 1972, there were more than 40 asbestos mines in the country, employing 21,500 workers.

In the 1950s, Pickard and other doctors in the mining towns persevered in their efforts for an international alert on the health hazards of exposure to asbestos fibers and dust that cause asbestosis, an inflammatory disease that scars the lungs, and mesothelioma, an inoperable cancer. Pickard's wife and his son, who was also a doctor, died of mesothelioma. As the environmental lobby increased, asbestos mining companies began to cut back on their operations around the world, and in 1979, eight years after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had declared asbestos hazardous, Cape PLC finally closed down in South Africa.

In 1995, a year after the Mandela government swept into power, the National Union of Mineworkers asked a team of British lawyers to act against Cape PLC. The company has argued for the case to be heard in South Africa, which the plaintiffs said would cost more than they could afford. Last month's ruling means they can apply for legal aid in Britain.

In Prieska, the dusty, northern Cape town where Cape PLC had its main processing mill, some of the plaintiffs are subdued about the possibility of winning damages. "What about those who died all those years ago?" asks Martin Savall. "And what about those who are yet to die?" Savall, 65, got asbestosis not by working in the asbestos factory he was a school principal but merely by exposure to the dust clouds that swept across the town. Now he sits on the verandah of his house, coughing and wheezing, as he coordinates the names of many claimants who are not on the original list of 3,000. "Compensation won't cure us, or bring back the dead," he said. "But it will go toward a better education and a better life for our children."

The new claimants include the dependents of people who once lived in or around Prieska and who have died in other parts of South Africa or abroad of mesothelioma. This cancer of the chest and abdominal cavity, caused by the inhalation of asbestos particles, can lie dormant for up to 40 years.

Prieska doctor Deon Smith diagnoses 12 to 15 cases of asbestosis or mesothelioma in the town each year. "It won't go on for ever, but the level of contamination of this illness is unimaginable. It could be another l4 or 15 years before it is phased out."

One of Smith's most recent mesothelioma fatalities was a 28-year-old local policeman. "He probably played around the asbestos dumps when he was a kid," he said. Although a locally commissioned study gave Prieska an environmental clearance last year, young children clamber around dumps in which discarded fibers of blue asbestos are still exposed, says Cecil Skeffers, Prieska secretary of Concerned People Against Asbestos. When the northwest wind blows dust storms across town, some people in Prieska still hold their breath.