Australia's silent killer

Matt Peacock

Right now, Australia's in the grip of a silent epidemic. It's an epidemic of the most painful and deadliest cancer you can imagine. It's a thin, near-invisible, sheet-like cancer that can lurk in your body for ten, twenty, forty years or more, before it suddenly spreads out, to wrap itself around your vital organs and squeeze you to death within months.

It strikes people from ALL walks of life. Judges, journalists, carpenters, cooks, housewives, handymen, electricians, builders, plumbers, surgeons, nurses, teachers ... you name them, it's killed them.

We have more of these cancers per head of population than any other country in the world. Yet they were entirely preventable. These days, most people who develop this cancer never had the faintest idea that they would. It often starts with a back pain. You feel off colour, tired. You get thinner. You have tests. Generally, the doctor doesn't identify it first time around, unless you're only months from death. Then you are told its name. 'Mesothelioma.' Most people have to practice how to say the word. 'Meso-thelioma.'

Imagine how you feel! 'That's what Bernie Banton had, wasn't it? Don't you have to work with asbestos to get that? I've never worked at an asbestos factory. I've never been near Wittenoom, or Baryulgil, or Barraba, where they mined the stuff!'

But then you're told you don't have to. In fact, most people who get mesothelioma these days got it from asbestos exposure they were hardly aware of. It could have been a sheet of asbestos cement under their bathroom floor that their father sawed. It could have been sprayed on that office ceiling, or in the insulation wrapped around those hot pipes, or the fibro under the roof eaves, or the fence, or the sewerage pipes, or the garden shed ... even your driveway, or the local oval where the waste was dumped. It could even have been under your carpet - underfelt, made from the shredded asbestos bags that leaked death everywhere they went.

Wharfies on the docks, who slung the bags over their shoulders, unloading them from the ships. Truck drivers, who loaded their trucks and drove them to the factories. Bag recyclers who picked them up when they'd been emptied, shook them out, and resold them to the fruit sellers at Victoria markets. Queensland farmers who wrapped bunches of banana in them. Western Australia wheat farmers who got their superphosphate in them.

We've probably all ripped up carpet somewhere along our lives. The most damaged Hessian bags went straight into the shredder without cleaning, turned into underfelt with all the asbestos still left intact. Imagine the dust when you rip it up. The potentially lethal dust. This is not a disease restricted to miners and factory workers. It's a disease that affects us all, more than any other people in the world.

And yet it's hardly talked about. In the past few weeks, travelling around the country speaking to different groups like this, I've been struck by the number of people who, when asked, will then tell you they know someone - a friend, a relation, a workmate - who's developed mesothelioma. I work as a reporter for the ABC, and I've just published a book called Killer Company. Last month, after filming a story about the asbestos-laden carpet underfelt, I was shocked when only right at the end of the day, as we were packing the gear away, my sound recordist told me his father had died from mesothelioma. People just don't like talking about it. The experience is often so horrible and so unexpected, they want to forget.

Yet you'd think we would talk about it more ... especially considering that most of these cancers were eminently preventable, and were largely the result of the activities of one company - indeed, of one family. I am talking of James Hardie, or as it was once called, James Hardie Asbestos. Back then the only truthful thing about the company's name, by the way, was the word 'asbestos'. Its founder, the man James Hardie, sold out before it began making asbestos products, and it was actually the Reid family which built its fortune on asbestos. And it was John B Reid - as the family's third generation Chairman - who ruled the company for twenty three years, during which time - of peak asbestos production - the exposures occurred that caused the mesotheliomas we are now seeing today.

You probably haven't heard of John Reid before. If you have, the chances are it's for his good works. His sponsorship and philanthropy. The John B. Reid scholarship. The John B. Reid memorial wing. The John B. Reid Lecture theatre. Gone now is his connection with asbestos. Along with the company, he had a personal PR makeover during the 1980s when the word "Asbestos" was erased from the name, and the company finally abandoned the mineral.

Yet consider this: The company was first sued unsuccessfully for compensation for asbestosis in 1939. 1939. John Reid, as the company's legal officer in the late 1950s, presumably knew of this. And he certainly knew about mesotheliomas by 1966. By then he was on the board with his father, and he was sent an article in Britain's Sunday Times about this 'new killer dust disease'. He made inquiries. He was told by his own personnel officer that there was nothing new in the article - it was just one of many reports around the world about studies, conducted since 1935, linking asbestos to cancer of the lung, bladder or uterus, mesothelioma and other fatal complaints.

So what did he do with that information? Did he act on it? Reid was advised to ignore the publicity. And that's what he did.

That was in 1966. By then the company was well aware that even people whose only exposure to the dust was washing asbestos-covered overalls was capable of killing them. The company doctor warned the board that people living down the road from the Hardie's factories might get cancer ... which, of course, later - they did. He also made the quaint suggestion that Hardie should only hire older people ... on the reasoning that by the time they developed a mesothelioma, they'd be dead from other causes anyway.

This reasoning also presumably operated in reverse, for the Aboriginal employees at the company's mine at Baryulgil, near Grafton, where Aboriginal life expectancy was not usually long enough for them to have time to develop asbestos cancers. That might explain why Dr McCullagh said nothing about the asbestos tailings scattered throughout their community, on the road and in the schoolyard, where tiny lids turned into snowmen as they played in the carcinogenic dust.

It was to be another 21 years from the time John Reid was advised to say nothing - 1987, to be precise - before the company was finally forced to abandon the mineral that had brought his family so much wealth, and had killed so many Australians - on my reckoning, roughly the same toll of Australians killed in the last World War - without question our largest peacetime disaster.

So what did the company do in those intervening decades?The simply answer is, it covered it all up. It spent a small fortune hiring the best lawyers, spin-merchants, ad agencies and lobbyists money could buy, and shut the story down.

Now, I have thought about this a lot. I've imagined what it was like for a young John Reid, born into a position of privilege and power, educated at Scotch College and Melbourne University, groomed as Hardie's South Australian manager before taking over the reins at the top of the company. We've exchanged correspondence. We've spoken. I've wanted him to explain himself. To explain why it took so long to get out of asbestos.

Perhaps he did try to do the right thing, but it was all too hard? I don't believe that, but he could at least make his excuses. Surely he at least owes that to the twenty thousand or so families affected? Instead all we've got from John Reid is a resounding silence.

Amazingly, in Hardie's centenary book about this one-product company, there's scarcely a mention of asbestos. It wouldn't have been 'proper', Reid tells the readers, because the company was involved in legal proceedings. In fact the company was by then involved in a massive whitewash, laundering Hardie's and the chairman's own image to erase the public's memory of the asbestos empire that was claiming an ever-increasing number of lives.

Hardie embarked on a cold, calculated strategy to maximise profits, minimise compensation and conceal the culprits. So blatant was the re-branding that within a few years the company even became the multi-million dollar sponsor of the Life Be In It campaign. Remember Norm, and the TV ads ... designed to encourage a fitter, healthier Australia, where we were all exhorted to 'live life to the max'? Amazing , isn't it? Life Be In it, brought to you by the Killer Company. Hardie's corporate relations manager presumably rubbed his hands with glee ... he reported to his bosses that this sponsorship would offset what he called 'any perceived undesirable aspects of our operations'.

Fast-forward twenty years later, to the year 2000 ... and the company was still up to the same tricks. The course had been set; the tactics refined. It had a new board ... many of them, Meredith Hellicar, Sir Llew Edwards ... hand-picked by John Reid. It had never told anyone about the driveways and garage floors made from its waste. Just quietly paid-up when someone had the stamina and stomach to sue before they died ... ensuring, of course always, that they agreed to keep the settlement confidential. Can't have other people knowing their lives might be at risk. Certainly can't pay to have the hazard removed.

And why not? Well, as Meredith Hellicar told me sharply only a few years ago ... 'we're not a bottomless pit ... it's time we recognised that the whole asbestos thing was one big mistake'. Well, not quite. Big - yes. Mistake - no. More like turning a blind eye. If it takes people decades to get the disease there's less chance of being caught. So even Meredith Hellicar knew well about the asbestos driveways, but neither she, nor anyone else from the company, has ever warned anyone about them.

In the year 2001 Hardie had never admitted to anyone - shareholders or the public - just how may lives its asbestos was likely to claim. They were hidden behind confidential settlements for those victims who had the heart to sue. And when a new Australian accounting standard - ED88 - looked like insisting that Hardie have to declare ALL its estimated asbestos liabilities ... the company pressed ahead with its by-now notorious strategy of hiving off its asbestos subsidiaries into what turned out to be a grossly underfunded foundation. Can't have people knowing that we're up for hundreds of millions. Then we'll never be able to launch on the New York stock exchange.

Once again, the spin machine sprang into action. The Foundation would provide certainty. It was fully funded. Well, we know what happened then, thanks to Bernie Banton and a dedicated band of unionists, lawyers, asbestos victims, journalists, and you, the public. Hardie was dragged back, kicking and screaming, into a deal that took years to strike and no doubt years off Bernie's life. Hellicar and the other directors and executives were found guilty of authorising a misleading media release. That's all. What an irony. You live by spin, you die by spin. But how pathetic, really. A false media release ... that's all.

Nobody has ever been charged with deliberately exposing tens of thousands of fellow citizens to lethal doses of a product that was a known killer. And the honorary 'Dr' John B. Reid, AO? Well, he's still around. He's never answered the questions I put to him on behalf of the families and victims of his Killer Company.


Matt Peacock is an ABC-TV reporter and the author of Killer Company: James Hardie Exposed, ABC Books, Sydney, 2009 (available online) This is the text of his speech at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute in Geelong, and broadcast on ABC Radio National's Life Matters program. Matt was a speaker at the Evatt Foundation's forum on Corporate Crime and Human Rights at NSW Parliament House on 10 September 2009.


Suggested citation
Peacock, Matt, 'Australia's silent killer', Evatt Journal, Vol. 9, No. 4, November 2009.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/australias-silent-killer.html>