The Department of Health is to sign an agreement with the Chamber of Mines and National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to kick-start a project to benefit former mineworkers who are seeking compensation for occupational lung diseases.
Many decades after South Africa became aware of conclusive medical evidence of the deadly risks of asbestos, the government is finally acting to protect public health by banning the fibres completely from a wide range of day-to-day building, piping and motor car products.
The fortunes of asbestos have declined in recent years, after the realisation that inhaling asbestos fibres could lead to cancer. However, debate about the safety of this mineral hasn't ended yet - at least not in Zimbabwe. This country is the world's fifth largest producer of chrysotile fibre, or white asbestos - after Russia, Canada, China and Brazil. Earnings from the industry in Zimbabwe are expected to top 40 million US dollars this year through exports to over 50 countries, the major export destinations being the Far East, Middle East and Africa. Zimbabwe's two asbestos mines employ 7,000 people - no small number in a country facing 70 percent unemployment. Another 120,000 persons benefit from the extraction in downstream industries. With this mind, Zimbabwe's government has renewed efforts to draw a distinction between white asbestos and crucidolite, or blue asbestos, and amosite (brown asbestos). A government-funded body - the National Chrysotile Asbestos Taskforce - claims that white asbestos is not harmful if produced and used carefully. Blue and brown asbestos were mined mainly in South Africa and Australia - but production has ceased because of fears about the health hazards of these asbestos varieties. Zimbabwe's argument is proving a tough sell in the European Union (EU) and the United States. Due to pressure from environmentalists and trade unions, the EU has given its members until 2005 to remove all asbestos from the market. Argentina, Australia, Chile, Croatia and Saudi Arabia have also banned the substance. The speed with which Zimbabwe's government has thrown its weight behind white asbestos has been unmatched by its commitment to improving safety standards. Although government signed an International Labour Organisation convention on the safe and controlled use of white asbestos in 1986, authorities only ratified it in May this year. Rabelan Baloyi - an occupational health specialist who sits on the taskforce - says that as a result of this delay, government lags behind in adopting legislation that will compel the industry to adequately protect workers from exposure. In addition, it has yet to guarantee compensation for those already affected - whose number is a closely-guarded industry secret. As it continues with efforts to promote white asbestos, Zimbabwe might also find matters complicated by a 2001 ruling of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). (Source: Wilson Johwa,IPS, Dec 18 2003)
The burden of disease resulting from working in mines is unacceptably high in South Africa, Health Minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said on Tuesday. Speaking in the National Assembly during debate on the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Amendment Bill, she said about 25 000 compensation applications were made each year for occupational lung diseases resulting from working in mines. In the past, occupational health has often been neglected, and yet the fact remains that globally over one million workers die from work-related diseases and injuries, and there are over 160-million cases of work-related diseases annually. The amendments in the bill might appear to be minor, but had far-reaching implications, as they will unblock some of the problems experienced thus far, she said. Among other things, the bill extended the length of time during which an ex-miner could apply to be medically examined from six to 24 months. Tshabalala-Msimang said one of the most important provisions in the bill was one that limited commission for agents who assisted mineworkers in accessing compensation. A fee of not more than half a percent of the benefit paid to the sick worker could be charged, and the bill made it an offence to charge more. The measure received the support of all sides of the House, and will now go to the National Council of Provinces for concurrence.(Source:SAPA, 22 October 2002)
Gencor ordered to clean up old asbestos mine The Bareki Tribal Authority and the concerned residents of Heuningvlei in the North West province have demanded that Gencor and it’s subsidiary, Gefco, clean up an old mine and mill sites that they believe pose a serious health hazard. One of the greatest concerns is the health of some 50 pupils who attend primary school in a building right on the old mill site. Blue asbestos, one of the most toxic and carcinogenic forms of asbestos, was mined at Heuningvlei until 1979. Inhaling even a few strands of the asbestos is enough to cause mesothelioma, or cancer of the lungs, an extremely painful terminal illness. Many Heuningvlei residents are already suffering from asbestos-related diseases and new cases are being diagnosed each week, said Spoor. Steven Kotoloane of the Heuningvlei Asbestos Interest Group, said people in his community had grown up with asbestos and had come regard the high levels of death and disease caused by asbestos as a normal part of life in the Kalahari. The interest group has joined the Bareki Tribal Authority in demanding the clean-up. According to the letter of demand sent to the chief executive officer of Gefco and Gencor’s directors, the mill site is heavily contaminated with loose asbestos fibres and the asbestos tailing dump is not adequately covered. Although a concrete slab was cast over a part of the mill site containing asbestos fibre, the sides are not sealed and copious quantities of asbestos fibre have been released. Gefco and Gencor have until today (Friday 6 September) to notify the Bareki Tribal Authority and the Heuningvlei Asbestos Interest Group of the steps they propose to take to remedy the situation. Failure to do so will result in the two organisations resorting to court action to force a clean-up. South Africa has the highest rate of mesothelioma in the world, as we were one of a handful of countries that extensively mined the most dangerous blue asbestos. Mesothelioma became a notifiable and scheduled industrial disease in October 1979, the year Heuningvlei closed down. Asbestos products are banned in Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Austria, Poland, Belgium and Saudi Arabia. (Kerry Cullinan, Health-e, 05-09-2002)
British-based multinational Cape plc is expected to pay a first tranche of £21-million (about R336-million) in June to a trust set up to aid sufferers from asbestos-related diseases in South Africa. The payment is part of a conditional settlement reached on December 21 last year between the company and lawyers acting for 7 500 asbestos victims in the Northern Cape and Northern Province. The victims contracted asbestos-related diseases as a result of working at, or living in the vicinity of, Cape's former South African mines and mills. Cape also agreed to pay a further £10-million over the next 10 years. According to London lawyer Richard Meeran, whose firm Leigh Day and Co represented the South African plaintiffs in legal actions in Britain, the settlement was unprecedented in its nature. Meeran said the maximum payment would be for victims of mesothelioma (the fatal asbestos-related cancer of the lining of the lungs). They will each receive £5 250. The settlement is conditional on the victims undertaking not to take further action against Cape, but also conditional on the South African government agreeing not to support other victims in any possible future legal actions. In addition, however, Cape wants an assurance from the South African government that the company will be absolved from its legal liability to rehabilitate its mine dumps in South Africa. According to Meeran, it looked probable that the conditions would be met. He said the conditions sounded onerous, but were not the same as selling out. He added that during the legal battle there had been a very real possibility that Cape could have declared insolvency and that claimants would have got nothing. (Source: Sunday Independent, 13 January 2002)