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The Legacy of Asbestos

The lack of environmental and health research can lead to fatal human consequences. Asbestos has been banned from being mined and used in South Africa. But the ghost of asbestos-related diseases still haunts many of our people.


What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a toxic mineral that can come out of large deposits from the earth. It is also part of other minerals such as talc and vermiculite. It is usually found in serpentine rock. This mineral is currently mined and exported by China, Russia and Kazakhstan.

South Africa was once the third-largest exporter of asbestos. It was popular for manufacturing household flooring and roofing materials. These would include roof sealants, coatings, reinforcements, ceilings and tiles.

Asbestos initially seemed like a twofold blessing for many unassuming South Africans. Firstly, it created a lot of industrial jobs in 188 mines – predominantly in the Northern Cape. Secondly, it served as an affordable material for household flooring and roofing.

It was used in the following ways:

  • As an insulator in commercial buildings and lower income homes.
  • As lining in water pipes and plumbing supplies.
  • As fire blankets.
  • As brake linings and pads for vehicles.

It was loved for its strength and power. It is a cost-effective commercial and residential building material. But the World Health Organisation classifies asbestos as carcinogenic. This means that asbestos has the potential to cause cancer. Little did thousands of South Africans know that they were exposed to slow poison.

What Are the Health Effects of Asbestos?

South Africa used to be the global leader in producing and exporting asbestos. Extensive mining and use of the mineral have led to thousands of untimely deaths. The cause of death is mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

Exposure to asbestos causes cancer in the following parts of the human body:

  • Lungs
  • Larynx
  • Ovaries

Medical researchers have confirmed that this disease occurs in “the forgotten organs” of the abdomen. In 2002, South Africa estimated 200 cases of mesothelioma per year. The same report cited that more than 2 700 South Africans died of mesothelioma. All these cases of mesothelioma in South Africa rank as the highest number of cases in the world.

30 percent of mesothelioma cases in South Africa are directly linked to environmental exposure. The epicentre of this disease is the Northern Cape. More than 70 percent of reported environmental cases affect women and children who were exposed to miners.

The link between asbestos and cancer was discovered by a South African pathologist named Christopher Wagner in 1960. He performed an autopsy on a South African man who worked at a gold mine. Tuberculosis was a serious disease at the time. But for some reason, patients living and working in the Northern Cape were not recovering as expected.

The autopsy results never confirmed TB. Rather, a tumour in the patient’s right chest and a collapsed lung came to light. Scans were done on 14 patients who lived near an asbestos mine. Biopsies confirmed the presence of mesothelioma. Despite this, the South African asbestos industry continued working over the following 2 decades – tripling in production outputs, as well as the death rate linked to the mineral.

In 2008, South Africa banned asbestos. The ban prohibits the production, importation and exportation of asbestos.

Fast forward to 2020, the South African Department of Labour confirmed that “South Africa still has asbestos-containing materials in many buildings and naturally occurring asbestos in areas where it was previously mined.”

Several laws and regulations have been implemented to manage the damage caused by asbestos. A few facilities have doctors who specialise in mesothelioma but the specialised treatment is expensive. Continuous research and health investment will help those living with all forms of cancer caused by asbestos.

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