Two of South Africa’s most recent victims of asbestos related diseases highlight the dangers of contamination from old asbestos mines.
The victims, a 19-year-old and a 60-year-old man from Kuruman, died from pollution attributed to a local asbestos mine and mill. Asbestos mining was a big business in South Africa and the material was used extensively for domestic construction.
Nearly a decade ago, the government released a study on pollution at former asbestos mines and processing sites that indicated numerous potential health risks. By 2005 the government had cleaned up nearly half of the asbestos sites listed in the report.
One site, the Whitebank mine, may have contributed to deaths of the two men. Six years ago, a journalist visiting the mine, formerly owned by Kuruman Cape Blue Asbestos, noted a 150 meter hill littered with asbestos and surrounded by open bags and large piles of blue asbestos (crocidolite).
Crocidolite is believed to be one of the more toxic forms of asbestos and large quantities of the blue dust were being blown into the surrounding countryside. The government has since buried most of the loose asbestos under a layer of soil with the hope of containing it permanently.
The deaths come in the wake of renewed attempts to pass legislation banning the manufacture, use, and trade of asbestos and any material containing asbestos fibers. Even though most of the country’s asbestos mines have been silent for the last 20 years, doctors are worried about an increase in patients because of the latency period for diseases and communities exposed to the carcinogen.
Clinics around the country see asbestos patients on a weekly basis and the Asbestos Relief Trust, a $55 million fund for former mine workers, has been busy since it began in 2003.