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Byron Shire
October 27, 2021

Death by asbestosis: Mullum Hospital’s last gasp – lest we forget

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John Stevens

As you make your way down Left Bank Road in Mullumbimby there is, for all to see, a stark reminder and further evidence of one of the biggest corporate scandals this country has ever witnessed.

The Mullumbimby Hospital is now shrouded in white plastic as it waits to be demolished. Symbolically, the last act of our dying hospital is to protect the community which it served since 1969 from the asbestos which caused its termination.

As the story of the crimes and deception of the James Hardie (JH) company fade from community consciousness (as they had hoped it would) our hospital’s last gasp should remind us of how wicked some corporations can be. A reminder of the cost in lives and resources that companies like JH take from the Australian community.

James Hardie was the manufacturing company in Australia, later globally, that dominated the market for asbestos products following the Second World War. The iconic Australian fibro house which populated the suburbs througout the country during the postwar housing boom, was built with asbestos-cement roofs, walls and fences. At the same time, James Hardie’s asbestos-cement pipes and asbestos lagging were woven through the industrial landscape.

Science was right

The deadly effects of asbestos on human health were known as early as the 1920s. Reliable, rigorous and consistent scientific evidence, available since the 1950s, shows that 93 per cent of all cases of mesothelioma (caused by asbestosis) are a direct result of asbestos exposure.

Like the tobacco industry, asbestos companies including JH used their significant resources to discredit and bury the science and press who reported the negative findings.

It is estimated that at least 10,000 Australians died of asbestosis between 1960 and 1990. Asbestos was banned from use in the 1990s but the disease can take up to 20 years from contamination to present as an illness (longer in some cases).

Estimates are that another 50,000 Australians will die from asbestos. Most don’t know they have been exposed and are not sick – yet. 710 people died in 2017 of mesothelioma, from contamination that most likely occurred in the 1980s.

Defending the indefensible

When the first compensation case actually made it to court in 1975 JH defended the indefensible. With slick lawyers, out of court settlements and delaying tactics that ensured most claimants were dead before their day in court, these were David and Goliath struggles for justice that JH gloated over triumphantly. That was until the first conviction for negligence was successful in 1991 and then the fibro walls came tumbling down.

According to the Australian Asbestos Network many other work related court victories followed. By the beginning of this century the battleground moved from the workplace to the health damage caused by ‘third wave’ asbestos exposure in the home – what one lawyer called ‘the urban nightmare’.

James Hardie twisted every which way to distance its current operations from its ongoing asbestos liabilities.

In 2001 the company established the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation (MRCF) with a total of $293 million in funds, saying that this fund would be able to meet all the future asbestos claims.

Offshore answer

James Hardie then relocated its company off-shore to Holland, leaving behind the compensation fund that has a massive financial shortfall.

The subsequent judicial inquiry in NSW in 2004, the Jackson Inquiry, was critical of JH’s actions and, after great public and governmental pressure, the company was forced to finalise a new compensation deal. The Carr government in NSW secured a new deal but it took until 2007 for that agreement to be reached. In the end JH guaranteed a fund of $4 billion to cover its future obligations to asbestos victims.

Suffocating death

There is no cure for mesothelioma which is a type of cancer that destroys the lungs though it is not lung cancer. Apart from the decades it can take from contamination to the first symptoms it then often takes years from diagnosis to death. And it is a nightmarish, ugly, painful and humiliating death by degrees, as sufferers slowly but inevitably suffocate.

It destroys the lives of good and innocent people as well as their families.

The James Hardie Board was found responsible for knowingly pushing a product that is toxic to human health that has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths with many more to follow, just in Australia. They were also convicted of deceiving the stock exchange. For their crimes they were sacked and banished from holding company Board positions in Australia for between five and 15 years (they’re all eligible now to regain these lofty positions).

The CEO at the time Peter McDonald was also fined $350,000. That same year he was given a $9million payout by JH for his outstanding service to the company.

Community sill paying

Communities accross Australia continue to pay the cost of JH crimes through the rehabilitation of buildings affected by asbestos all over the country. Every job of removing asbestos is incredibly expensive and then once removed where do you put this deadly material?

Our Mullumbimby Hospital was a great public asset, managed and loved by its community. It was raffled and lamington driven into existence in the late 1960s.

At 50 years of age it was ready to mature from a place that made this town safe, where my children were born, into a public asset for the homeless or other disadvantaged groups and public causes. But our hospital was diagnosed with having friable asbestos in its construction. Now millions of dollars of our common wealth (our community’s money – not James Hardie’s) is being spent rehabilitating the site.

This exercise is being repeated a million times over on other buildings of importance – like your family home if it was built before the mid-1980s and it will be your family’s wealth that will be required to pay for it.

Where is our compensation for the loss of this asset and all that follows JH?

More importantly, where is the real justice for the human victims past, present and future as a result of your decision to knowingly contaminate and sentence to death tens-of-thousands of Australians just to make a profit?

And what of James Hardie: you can find its head office in Dublin Ireland and it is valued at $1.5Billion.

Farewell Mullum Hospital and thank you to all of those who served the community through it.


♦ For more information on asbestos and mesothelioma, visit mesothelioma.com.

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  1. You can walk or you drive down left Bank Road in Mullumbimby, and a stark reminder comes into view of one of the biggest corporate scandals this country has ever seen.
    The Mullum Hospital is wrapped away in plastic from the atmosphere because of eroding asbestos.

  2. Government must play a big role in insuring similar situations don’t arise or continue especially when the scientific evidence is available and there are alternatives.
    Gas fields that may very well contaminate our water and give off human killing pollution to continuing to mine and burn coal to plastics to so many other practices,to many to name.
    Governments in this day and age have access to most scientific data so need to be honest and do the right thing by the people of the country they represent.
    I’m sure the governments of the day were aware of the dangers of asbestos but refused to act as they continue today to refuse to act on all the other nasties to keep rich mates happy and the party coffers full for the next election.

    To the people of Australia.
    Stand up for a healthy future for the world. There are many ways to do this with or without to much effort like like signing online petitions, changing to safe consumer products, installing solar, etc etc and with the coming federal election vote for the parties who hopefully will help heal rather than business as usual.


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