Asbestos House: The secret history of James Hardie Industries
Scribe, $39.95 pb, 448 pp
There is no minimal safe exposure to free asbestos fibre. It is the most lethal industrial material of the twentieth century. Asbestosis and mesothelioma are the common diseases arising from exposure to it. Mesothelioma, a cancer, is distinctively brutal in the way it causes its victims to die. Typically, there are no symptoms for as many as forty years; when the disease appears, death follows after a few excruciatingly painful months. James Hardie, a conservative icon of Australian industry, was established in 1888 and its core business was fibro-cement manufacture, the fibre being asbestos. Gideon Haigh traces the postwar success of the company and its turning away from the gathering evidence of asbestos’s toxicity. Asbestos, it dissembled, was dangerous (like many industrial materials) rather than lethal. Hardie comforted itself in the belief that the incidence of disease reflected past periods of exposure and not the current changed practices. At the same time it failed even to meet these inadequate dust standards in its workplaces.
During the 1980s Hardie developed its own replacement fibre for asbestos and it ceased production of asbestos in 1987. Sufferers from asbestos-related diseases litigated. The company paid up and continued to dissemble. It diversified with mixed success, eventually striking gold in the US, where it is the main supplier of cement sheeting and pipes, now reinforced with cellulose. By the late 1990s litigation pressure required a more comprehensive response. The new generation of management at James Hardie had not had anything to do with asbestos and, understandably, wanted to move on. This, of course, was not a luxury available to sufferers of asbestos-related disease.