My husband, Brian, was 52 when he was given a death sentence.
It wasn’t because he committed a crime. Quite the contrary: CSR Limited, a ruthless asbestos mining company located in Wittenoom, Western Australia, wronged him when it contaminated him with the deadly mineral, which led to him developing mesothelioma – an incurable cancer.
The company operated in that area between 1943 and 1966. Brian and his family were among the 20,000 men, women and children who lived or worked in the remote town during that time.
The mining company exposed every Wittenoom resident to asbestos fibers in the dust that covered the mine site and most areas of town. As news of the tragedy at Wittenoom spread, experts predicted that 25 percent of its inhabitants would eventually die of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases. My husband would be among them.
Forty-five years after Brian left Wittenoom, he began experiencing shortness of breath.
A visit to his doctor revealed an accumulation of fluid in his lungs was causing the discomfort. The fluid was later drained and sent to pathology. The results were devastating. Doctors diagnosed Brian with pleural mesothelioma caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers.
Given less than a year to live, he joined the growing list of innocent asbestos victims who had lived in Wittenoom and would die as a result of it.
On that sad day of his diagnosis, I also became a victim of asbestos. Although I had not lived in Wittenoom or been exposed to asbestos fibers elsewhere, Brian’s asbestos-related illness affected every aspect of my life.
An Incidental Victim
Brian lived with mesothelioma for two years.
As his wife and caregiver, I bore witness to the devastating effects this insidious disease had on his once fit and healthy body. For me, this was the cruelest torture. As Brian gradually lost the ability to do anything he enjoyed, including the simple act of eating and drinking, I was constantly reminded of the fact that he was dying. Helpless to do anything about it, I grieved for what he was losing and for the loss of him in my future.
Brian was only a shell of the man he used to be as he lay on his death bed, but his mind was still strong. The last thing he said to me: “I love you.”
His death left an aching hole in my heart that can never be filled. Asbestos was directly responsible for Brian’s death, but there would be no compensation coming my way. Shortly after his diagnosis, Brian and I had attempted to bring his case to court.
We were not successful.
At mediation, it was determined that CSR Limited was not aware of the deadly nature of asbestos during the time Brian and his family lived in Wittenoom. I refused to believe it then and now.
Regardless, there is no amount of money that could ever compensate me for the loss of the wonderful man who was my husband, my lover and my best friend.
First Wave of Deaths
Experts say Brian’s death from asbestos was part of the first wave of victims resulting from the mining operation in Wittenoom.
Australia stopped mining asbestos in 1983, but the rise of asbestos-related deaths would continue. More than 165,000 tons of the deadly mineral had been shipped from the mine during its operation, and a huge portion of it made its way to the building industry.
Hailed as a miracle fiber for its heat resistant qualities, flexibility and low cost, it made the perfect material for use in over 3,000 building products like cement sheeting, roof tiles and insulation. Asbestos was widely used in the construction of homes and buildings in Australia between 1945 and 1980.
Anyone involved in the building trade during this time, like bricklayers, pipefitters, insulators, electricians, carpenters and plasterers, unwittingly exposed themselves to deadly fibers when they cut, sawed or damaged products containing asbestos. Many workers would die as a result, and these comprised the second wave of Wittenoom asbestos victims.
Third Wave of Asbestos Deaths Is Approaching
The deadly cycle of asbestos exposure, illness and death is not over yet – and may never be.
Thousands of men and women, fueled by do-it-yourself TV shows, are renovating their own homes without first determining if they contain asbestos. Even simple renovations such as sanding down cement walls for painting, lifting old linoleum floors and pulling down asbestos sheds and fences can release deadly asbestos fibers into the air and endanger the health of everyone in the vicinity.
Renovating without ensuring the safety of others and yourself is unwise.
Asbestos is everywhere and is not going away any time soon. Many thousands of homes built before 1987 with products containing asbestos are still standing across Australia today. A good number of these may be responsible for the third wave of asbestos victims.
There are plenty of warnings these days about the danger of asbestos and no reason anyone should put their life or the lives of others at risk.