For decades, South Africans viewed blue asbestos as a prime money maker. But today, as more and more South Africans both young and old succumb to the hazards of asbestos exposure, many are realizing that blue asbestos now represents a national environmental emergency.
According to an article that appeared in the Malay Mail, towns like Prieska have been hit hard by the country’s legacy of asbestos mining. “In most of the houses in our street, there is someone who has died of asbestosis or mesothelioma,” said Chris Julius, 58, who was diagnosed with asbestos cancer three months after his mother-in-law died of the disease.
Julius lives about 100 yards from where the now-demolished blue asbestos mill was once located. He never worked at the mill or in the midst of the “asbestos mountains” in the country’s North Cape area, but he is one of hundreds who are suffering due to non-occupational exposure to the toxic material.
Older residents of Prieska recall playing atop soft mounds of crocidolite asbestos tailings from the mines, the article notes, and though those days are past, it’s still possible to find an errant pile of asbestos fibers lying in the open. Some say they remember dusting asbestos off the fruits they ate on a daily basis.
“Imagine walking along a dirt road that is contaminated with asbestos fibres and a vehicle drives past. The dust that you inhale is full of microscopic asbestos fibres,” explained Rob Jones, a local environmental scientist. “The same scenario applies to sweeping the garden, house, working in the garden, etc. The exposures are almost constant.”
“This is really a national environmental emergency that should be dealt with. It is analogous to Libby, Montana in the US and Wittenoom, Australia,” added Jones, who has been involved with studies documenting the levels of contamination near the old mines.
Local Prieska physician Dr. Deon Smith says he sees at least 10 new cases of mesothelioma in the area each year. In some instances, the disease wipes out entire families. Residents are hard-pressed to understand why the government isn’t doing more to clean up the remaining blue asbestos, one of the most toxic forms of the mineral.
Recently, the Department of Environmental Affairs reported that nearly 5,000 out of some 23,000 households and 400 kilometres (248 miles) of road surfaces in the Northern Cape were polluted with asbestos. Out of 45 schools surveyed, 26 were affected, including four in Prieska.
Rehabilitation is expensive, the government says, which is why clean-up hasn’t been swifter. Still, residents think it needs to be at the top of the government’s must-do list.
“Other than study the problem, no real efforts have been initiated to date (to my knowledge),” said Jones. “Asbestos does not rot; it never goes away on its own. It is only safe when it is completely removed from the potential of human disturbance.”