Saturday, 25 July 2009

White Dust - How asbestos killed my Dad

There have been so many families affected by the terrible asbestos debacle, brought on when the manufacturing company James Hardy ignored their responsibilites in the pursuit of profit, making and selling their poisonous building material for more than a generation, even though executives knew of the dangers.

Australia in my childhood was full of the stuff, and even now new cases of asbestos related diseases are found every day. At least these days some people are receiving a little money in the name of justice, but nothing will ever compensate for the damage that was done.

This is the story of our family and asbestos ...

EVEN DURING MIDSUMMER a sea breeze used to riffle its way through the back yard. It rustled the heads of lettuce and the row on row of green and red beetroot tops which had so recently fought their way through the sandy soil to a new existence in the open air.

Her childhood at 52 Bondilla Road was as benign as the climate, although the little girl didn’t think so at times.

The vegetable garden was the work of both her parents. The father dug the soil, extracting the old tree roots from the loam, and made doubly sure of its purity by passing it through a sieve to extract any wayward bits of rock. He raked that soil until the bed was perfect, and then the mother took over, transplanting seedlings from the boxes where she had sprouted them. She pressed those tiny plants home, ensuring that every row was ramrod straight and NEAT.

The little girl and her sister learned the work ethic at an early age. Their job was to manipulate the hand pump at the garden well, taking turns until the bucket beneath the pump nozzle was half full.

They would then each get on one side of the handle and struggle their way, water slopping, and bucket occasionally knocking their shins, until they got to the new bed to spill the contents as carefully as they could into the spaces between the plants. She would have been eight at the time, and her sister six.

‘Five buckets today girls,’ the mother would say.

They were working people who thought of themselves as ‘middle class’. Her Dad was a ‘builder’ in those days, having worked his way up from ‘carpenter’. ‘Builder’ meant he employed two men to fashion the little fibro cement cottages which littered that small seaside town. ‘Carpenter’ was for when he worked with his own father, the little girl’s grandfather, learning the trade.

The carpenter’s apron seemed a part of him. A wide pocket for nails and a long thin one for the rule, and he’d sometimes hook a hammer to a leather belt at his waist.

To the girl, this was a bit like a cowboy’s holster, and she remembered the handle swaying against her Dad’s well-shaped bottom.

He was handsome as a young man. Not tall, but with a strong body developed by constant physical work and tennis and cricket, and he had a sun beaten complexion. She never saw him in a hat.

The father was never still, and always complaining. When he wasn’t complaining, he was sullen. He ground his teeth in concentration, and the incessant tension stiffened his entire body.

He didn’t even like food. It was as though the act of sitting at the table brought unwelcome bile to his throat, making it hard to swallow. More often than not he’d peck at a few morsels and then he’d push the plate away saying ‘I’m not hungry’.

Because he was middle class, he read Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph, voted for Bob Menzies and was always condemning the unions.

He never swore. That was something you just didn’t do. Church was out, but he worked for charity and was a member of the Masonic Lodge, but didn’t reach high office as his own father had.

Like her Grandfather though, he believed children should be seen and not heard, and paid attention to the girls mainly by imposing discipline with his tongue. He never hit them, but his haranguing was so sharp and belittling that it was worse than the cane the mother used to wield around their legs on occasions, though she did this more in threat than anger.

He’d be charming to all of the women up and down the street, helping them fix an old electric jug here or nail up a recalcitrant fence paling there, but when he got home he became morose. It seemed impossible for him to express any gentle emotions.

To the little girl he was a feeling more than a presence: she would knot up inside when he was around, and even in her later years the smell of old tobacco, sawdust and fibro cement dust brought prickles to the back of her neck.

If her father’s building job was within walking distance, the little girls would be asked to take a billy filled with scalding tea and pieces of new cake wrapped in grease proof paper for his morning snack. The walk always seemed an eternity.

They’d hold the billy between them, the wire handle biting into their skin. Taking care to keep it balanced so the hot liquid wouldn’t escape, they’d travel maybe a hundred yards or so, in fear they could slip and burn themselves. Then they’d set the billy down, adjust their grips and walk some more.

It was like a three-legged race in which one mistake could bring the whole crashing to disaster. The hot air from the container wafted around their legs, menacing. Sometimes one girl would lose the rhythm, and the evil hot billy would sway, nipping the other’s leg with a scorching sting. They always made it safely, but the dread never diminished.

Sometimes when a house was finished the whole family would work to clean up the mess: pick up the chunky bits of left over wood, the bent nails, and sweep up the sawdust and the white powder from the fibro sheets. They would throw it all into the father’s little Ford wagon and he’d take it off to the dump.

For years she pleaded with him to make her a book case, but it never happened. Instead, her few prized volumes lay in anonymity at the bottom of her wardrobe.

But she’d still gain his interest whenever she had academic success at school and his small eyes lit up when she brought home a book prize for coming top in the class. ‘Well, we have a stewed ant,’ he said. She got the message that he was proud of her.

Mostly, though, she and her sister were just scared of him, and did what they could to stay out of his way.

The back yard was a great place for games of cowboys and Indians when their boy cousins came to visit. Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers would jump around the tank stands and hide behind shrubs, dive in and out of the workshop (when their Dad wasn’t there), and generally shoot things up.

There was a day when the little girl didn’t notice the piece of galvanised iron piping left sticking out of the ground as part of new extensions to the house, and tripped and sprawled full length. Even now, if she ran her finger over her shin, she could still feel the deadness where the wound healed long ago. The deadness was in an area the shape of a half moon left there after the doctor inserted nine stitches.

She sobbed and dripped blood all the way along the path to the surgery, up the steps and onto the waiting room linoleum. Her father’s ultimatum got them straight to the doctor who sat with her, cringing, on the examination table. The surgery was dark with heavy furniture and paneled walls, and there were glass cases filled with evil looking medical instruments and specimens of diseased appendices and tonsils. She hated the smells of chloroform and disinfectants, and the bottles filled her with fear.

The starched sheet underneath her crackled as the doctor smiled, belying his intentions. He peered against the light at the sharp end of a syringe, and suddenly plunged it into her skin. She got a surprise more than anything: it didn’t hurt terribly much. But then he got some white cloth and began dabbing at her wound.

The sting was horrible. She tried to close her eyes, but she was fascinated with what was going on. She glimpsed bone and raw flesh and there were spots of blood on the sheet now too. Then the doctor had a needle and a thick thread a bit like her mum used to darn socks, but stiffer somehow. He began sewing her up, just like the socks. He pulled together the two sides of the hole in her leg with one relentless stitch after another.

‘Not much longer now,’ he said.

It was the worst darning job she’d ever seen. The black stitches didn’t even match the creamy pink of her skin. Would she spend her life darned up like that? She decided she couldn’t look any more.

When she did open her eyes again there was an imposing looking bandage on her leg, and she was able to walk importantly out of the surgery, in front of all of the other patients.

Altogether, it was a singular day – she was the centre of her father’s caring attention, and there had been anxiety in his eyes. Anxiety for her.

The garden had a secret. The little girl was small indeed, and greatly impressed, when her father buried an entire Indian motor bike and sidecar very deeply in the left hand corner of the yard, beyond the clothesline. It lies there still in its unmarked grave, hidden by kikuyu grass.

Until the poor old engine gave up the ghost the whole family traveled around on that rig for years. She remembered her mother clinging to the pillion seat behind her father, with her sister packed tightly beside her in the sidecar, swamped by the slipstream and the deafening noise from the engine.

A couple of years later her father divided up the yard with a picket fence, leaving a large space at the back. He’d been shooting out west with his mates, and she trembled at the idea of guns. This time he came home with a skinny little kangaroo wrapped in a towel – her Dad had shot its mother and found the joey in her pouch. He brought it home for them as a pet, and to keep the kikuyu down. The girl cried into her pillow that night.

In daylight hours Joey lived in her mother’s apron pocket, and gradually grew fat on milk she fed him through an eyedropper. Graduation day came when the picket fence was complete, and Joey was expected to live full time in the back yard. By this time he was still all legs, but able to hop around and munch grass. However, with his relentless growth, their love for Joey became tinged with fear. The mother would let herself through the gate in the picket fence to put washing on the line.

Thrilled to see his ‘Mum’, Joey would charge, aiming at her ‘pouch’ – the large pocket in her apron. Things got sticky when he was big enough to knock her over, and stickier still when he became so big he could leap the picket fence at a single bound and range the local streets.

One night Joey got out and didn’t return, and she saw her parents exchange a guilty look. Joey, she guessed, had shared the fate of his mother.

The little girl’s mother’s laundry copper was another source of childhood horror. It lived at one end of an outbuilding in the back yard, alongside two cement tubs that were fitted with a mangle.

As a family they would sometimes go prawning, taking scoop nets down to the local lake. The cool crystal water swirled around their bare toes and in the lamplight the prawns flashed as they swam into the traps. On a good night they’d fill a kerosene tin, and she was mesmerised as the green crustaceans squirmed and writhed, like so many big maggots with legs.

Her father would build a funeral pyre under the copper, by then filled with water. When it bubbled and fumed, fitting for a scene with the witches of Macbeth, he’d upend the tin into the cauldron and the prawns thrashed and flailed in the heat until they became still, and turned pink.

She hated seeing this torture but, pragmatically, she helped them eat the sacrifice only a few minutes later, on fresh bread and butter. The sweet-salt flesh of the prawns and the scrunch of the crusty bread were just too delectable.

Next to the tubs, the father built a small aviary, where they kept canaries. Yellow canaries that sang and lay speckled eggs that produced scrawny featherless chicks with huge beaks. Beaks that consumed mashed boiled egg and crushed arrowroot biscuits, and later, special seed the girls bought at the grocery shop down the street.

They were in for a surprise when the second nest of birds hatched out, and one turned out quite different from the rest. This chick had brown feathers and looked for all the world like a sparrow; probably a throw-back of some sort.

The little guy was doomed from the start though, because horror stalked him too. One morning they found his lifeless body in the bottom of the cage, torn half way through the bird wire. A cat must have got into the laundry during the night .

The main part of the laundry outbuilding in the back yard was the father’s workshop where he prefabricated kitchen cupboards and other portable parts of his houses.

She hated being around him when he worked as he was always full of tension and created a stifling atmosphere. He didn’t yell; just exuded anxiety and stress. Her problem was that he always liked to have a ‘mate’ nearby. It was as though he was afraid of being alone, and so it fell to the mother and the girls to stand by when he worked at home. This meant they fetched and carried small things for him: ‘Pass that hammer for me.’ or ‘Hold this still will you?’

She still remembers the tobacco smell and the flying white dust, and the taut muscles in his face as he sawed and hammered. Even then, his hands were gnarled and misshapen where he’d occasionally blundered with his tools. He must have driven home hundreds of thousand of nails in his time.

The ‘holding still’ often meant putting her meager weight on a piece of fibro cement sheet in an effort to keep it motionless while he split it with a special cutter. They all inevitably left these sessions covered in white. This was the same dust that was an integral part of her Dad when he came home from work at night.

His hair and his clothing were always drenched in the stuff. This was the dust that lay all over the floors in the unfinished houses, and coated the walls and the window sills. It contained asbestos, and today they know it as a courier of death.

The white powder from the fibro building sheets always surrounded them, but they rarely gave it a thought. They didn’t even consider it when the mother developed what the doctors called ‘emphysema’, although she’d never smoked. Nor when she and her sister both became asthmatics.

They did think about it many years later when the father became very ill. Scientific evidence about this white dust was at last being made public, and memories flooded back when they diagnosed lung cancer.

For the first time ever her father slowed down. He had time to think, and he began to talk about his life. He was dying in a nursing home when he and his daughter shared their one and only deeply personal conversation.

On that day he allowed her in. He talked about her mother and his parents. And how his father raised him as a child.

‘Boys were men before they were boys. They had to be,’ he said ‘If a man didn’t have flamin’ blisters on his hands he was a loafer. If his wife worked he was a sponger on his wife.’

Her grandfather embedded the lessons with floggings, he said. With a sulky strap eighteen inches long and half an inch thick. And at other times with his fists.

Her father adjusted his hearing aid.

‘A man had to keep his head up. Play a man’s role …’

He was trying to put his life into perspective. She looked at him closely, probably for the first time in many years. His face criss-crossed with lines like tracks through bushland, battered by years in the sun, the eyes lifeless with sad memories and his body shrunken by age and illness. Not a figure to incite fear.

He was powerless and distressing, so now she dared to cross the barrier which had lain between them for so long, and asked occasional questions.

‘I was the only boy and I copped the lot. I wasn’t allowed to look cross-eyed at my sisters. To him they were little godesses …’

The two of them had been talking like this for an hour: a long time for a dying man.
There was a rattle of cups outside in the hall, and she looked at her watch. Time to leave for the plane. How lives slip by …

She never saw her Dad again.

His death had taken a long time, and it was often painful. The medical people tried to persuade him and his children to take the central roles in a legal test case against the fibro manufacturer. Her father would be examined and interviewed and there would be a bedside court hearing … There would be an autopsy too, because they couldn’t prove absolutely the cause of his illness until after death.

A win would mean big money, they said, and it would pave the way for other sufferers to obtain just compensation.

His children couldn’t think of anything more horrible for a dying man than having to deal with barristers and courts. They didn’t want him prodded and verbally pushed around. The idea of a postmortem horrified them. They rejected the requests.

So her Dad died poor, and in peace. He’d suffered enough.

© June Saville 2008. Not to be reproduced without express written permission of the author.

Has asbestos or other industrial products touched your family? Tell me in a comment ...


  1. Such a sad story June. It is all around us and unfortunately employers won't spend the money to remove, instead they stick a "Warning Asbestos" label, as if that will give them peace of mind. Ugghhh Cheryl

  2. Mining of asbestos is more dangerous. I know how people died due to this. There is another disease, Silicosis. When quartz is crushed for use in glass industry and also rock is crushed for building materials. The death is slow and painful.

    It's a big issue all over the world Cheryl. What they're calling 'the second wave' of victims here in Australia are the people who have done DIY renovations to their homes. Whole families have been exposed when the man of the house unknowingly ripped out walls of the stuff.
    It can take thirty or so years after exposure that the illnesses reveal themselves.

    There ia town in Western Australia which was built to accommodate workers in a huge asbestos mine. Today it's derelict and hundreds of former residents died because they breathed in this horrible material.
    In Northern NSW there was a small town which housed many Aboriginal workers who helped mine the stuff. The company used asbestos to build the roads in their town and the young children played in it ...

  5. Sad story but well written. You reminded me that both my great grand-fathers were a coal miners. One died in a mining accident. It took me years to find that out because non-whites
    (he was Mexican) weren't listed as victims. The other died of black lung disease from the mines and his wife died of cancer inhaled from washing a coal miners clothes. Ah the business of the business - and it's fallout!

  6. WR - Yes we are still being affected by the practices that began in the industrial revolution.
    By the way nursie - you may be interested in an Australian Federal Government just out. It's made far reaching recommendations for change in our system, hoping to create more efficiencies in our reasonably egalitarian system.
    Go to the link for recommendations if you're interested.

  7. Hi June, Your father and your childhood reminds me a lot of my own. I once worked in a state office for several years where we all had problems all the time. I was transferred and later they tore down the building. I was by there and the men working had on white clothing from head to toe and masks and there were signs posted everywhere saying danger, asbestos! Made me wonder about all the colds, allergies, etc. we experienced while working there.

  8. Hi JUDY
    Yuk! However asbestos sheeting used in buildings is generally inert while it is intact. The killer fibres float around when the sheets are being made or cut or smashed in some way.
    Those men in white were taking precautions because they were pulling down the sheets.
    What year was this Judy?

    James Hardie knew about the dangers for thirty odd years and didn't say anything. I remember a friend worked in one of their laboratories helping to test the air from the factories to ascertain the number of fibres around. That was in the 1970s. She's probably a very sick lady these days - or perhaps even dead.
    Sad sad.

    A number of the executives of James Hardie are facing the Australian courts right now for what they did. They reckon the case will go for years.


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Cheers June