Poor diagnosis deprives SA asbestos miners of compensation

As a young mining writer I once paid a visit to an asbestos mine at Pomfret in the Northern Cape. On the arrivals hut alongside the mine landing strip was a defaced sign which read Welcome to Pomfret. God bless you”- with the word “bless” scored through and replaced by “help”. It raised a laugh at the time. But it was only years  later, when I began to grasp the enormity of the health hazards associated with asbestos mining, that the profundity of that piece of graffiti at Pomfret hit home. Looking further back, the mid-1950s was the turning point for occupational health and safety in SA asbestos  mining. That was about when the link between mesothelioma and asbestos was discovered. The failure of the (then) State to monitor and reduce dust levels effectively sealed the fate of miners and those living in asbestos communities in towns and places like Pomfret, Prieska, Penge, Kuruman, and Barberton (Msauli) – where children inevitably played on asbestos tailings dumps. It is an issue that continues to overhang the South African mining industry – as shown by the proceedings at this week’s International Mesothelioma Interest Group Conference in Cape Town. GK


Cape Town, 22 October 2014, BizNews Only half of former asbestos mine workers who have an asbestos related disease (ARD) are diagnosed while they are still alive.

This was the finding by researchers who compared the medical records of 149 former asbestos mineworkers with their autopsy findings.

“There was a very high rate of asbestos-related disease. Sixty three percent had an ARD at autopsy.  But only half of the cases were diagnosed in life,” Professor Jill Murray, of the School of Public Health at the University of the Witwatersrand, told the International Mesothelioma Interest Group Conference currently under way at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the pleura or peritoneum diagnosed up to 40 years after exposure to asbestos.

Murray conducted the research with a colleague, Zodwa Ndlovu, and Dr Jim te WaterNaude, medical consultant to the Asbestos and Kgalagadi Relief Trusts, which commissioned the research.

“This highlights the difficulty of making accurate diagnoses of these diseases,” said Murray. “The clinical diagnosis of asbestos-related diseases is not straightforward because other diseases may have similar symptoms. This raises the concern that poorly resourced public health care facilities may be missing many cases of disease.”

This shortcoming meant that many former mineworkers with asbestos related diseases were not able to claim compensation from the state, or the trusts, while they were still alive. The research team concluded that “the cessation of asbestos mining and usage in South Africa has drastically reduced occupational exposures but because of long latency, ARDs are still seen in former asbestos miners and workers. In addition, widespread contamination of the environment following decades of production, suggests an indefinite ARD epidemic in this country.”

Asbestos trusts face many more claims

Meanwhile, up to 233 new claimants suffering from mesothelioma, could still lodge claims against two private sector trusts formed to compensate former asbestos mine workers.

Presenting at the conference on behalf of five colleagues, Professor Gill Nelson of the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Public Health, warned the trusts that between 144 and 233 more mesothelioma claims can be expected by 2030. This was in addition to 464 confirmed mesothelioma cases already compensated by the trusts.

The Asbestos Relief Trust and the Kgalagadi Relief Trust were set up in 2003 and 2006 respectively by the former owners of various asbestos mines throughout South Africa.  More than 16 000 former mineworkers covered by the trusts have already been assessed and 5 400 claims to the value of R358 million paid.

In recent years the trusts have compensated an increasing number of mesothelioma claimants, who receive a much bigger benefit because of the severity of the disease.  The trusts therefore sponsored research by Nelson and her colleagues to ensure that sufficient funds are set aside for future mesothelioma sufferers.

Although South Africa was a major producer of asbestos for many decades, the trustees previously had to use international data for mesothelioma projections.  Nelson and her colleagues have now developed a new “home grown” mathematical model using the trusts’ mesothelioma data.

The researchers found that that although the number of mesothelioma claims against the trusts appeared to have peaked in 2009  – and would slow with the passage of time – the trustees  could plan for 183 further cases until 2030 (with a range of between 144 and 233 cases).

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