Asbestos Diseases

In the words of an asbestos victim

In his own words, an 82-year old asbestos victim talks about his exposure to the dangerous product, the health ramifications and the pursuit of compensation in South Australia.

In his own words, an 82-year old asbestos victim talks about his exposure to the dangerous product, the health ramifications and the pursuit of compensation in South Australia.<--break->

In the 1940s and 1950s, thousands of South Australians worked with asbestos products every day. Unknowingly, they were inhaling a substance that can cause significant harm and in some cases prove fatal.

“I worked at the same electrical company for 29 years, starting out as an apprentice electrician in a power station in 1946. After finishing my trade training I became a tradesman, before becoming an electrical operator of the power station five years later. From there I progressed within the company, working in a number of power stations in South Australia, and finished my electrical career as a systems controller.

Most of my exposure to asbestos occurred in the early part of my working life. One of the power stations was being constructed at the time, and part of my electrical duties involved wiring and installing the electric components of the main steam valves associated with the turbines.

This work involved ‘lagging’ pipes. Lagging involves covering the pipe work and receiver vessels with asbestos to about two inches thick. The laggers would bring their bags of dried asbestos pulp and empty the bags into a big bin, pour water on it, mix it up, put their arms in it and stir it into putty.

In those early years, the asbestos dust was sometimes like snow or thick, white clouds while I worked. It would sometimes be all over my body, face, hair, clothes, everything.

We had no idea how toxic the stuff was, and nor did our employer. I don’t blame the electrical company or my direct supervisors for my exposure, they just weren’t aware of the dangers.

In later years, long after I’d left the company, my hayfever was causing some respiratory problems and my doctor recommended a chest x-ray. The results showed numerous pleural plaques associated with exposure to asbestos. The reports were saying that there was extensive calcification on the surfaces of my diaphragm and lungs, and it appeared to be increasing.

At the time, I was feeling well. It didn’t worry me too much. I could work on my farm, although I did used to run out of breath chasing my kids around.

But as the years went on the shortness of breath became a much more significant issue. From what the doctors have told me, when you breathe in asbestos fibres it can take almost fifty years to work its way through the lung tissue to the surface. The plaque is a reaction to that, and is like icing on a cake. It stops the lung from expanding, and therefore inhibits breathing.

This resulted in a pleural effusion, which is a build up of fluid in the lungs. I had 1.7 litres of fluid in my right one. I had to have that drained, and it was at this time when I realised how serious my situation was.

Associate Professor Mark Holmes from the chest clinic at Royal Adelaide Hospital said, “We see a fair bit of these effusions where asbestos is involved. Sometimes it occurs once, sometimes it’s twice and sometimes it keeps recurring. All we can do is drain it.”

I had to have another effusion where 2.4 litres of fluid was taken out of my right lung. The breathlessness also increased, but this wasn’t because of the fluid, but more the lung condition related to the asbestos exposure.

These days, any activity causes me to get out of breath. The body just can’t get enough oxygen. If I walk to the front gate to put my bins out, by the time I get back I need a rest. It’s only about 30 yards each way. According to the GP, there’s general deterioration.

At the time of my first effusion operation, the doctor recommended that I see a lawyer and pursue compensation. I was recommended to Tindall Gask Bentley’s Tim White, who thought that I had a claim. I brought him all of my relevant information and details, and we went from there.

One doctor I saw said, “you’ll find the legal process a very interesting experience”, and it certainly was. I didn’t expect it to take so long, in the end it was almost two years to finalise the matter, but the lawyers need to dot their i’s and cross their t’s.

Tim and lawyer Victoria Bell were excellent to deal with, I can’t speak highly enough of them. I am certainly very, very happy with the end result.”

The author of this article could not be named for legal reasons.

If you have an asbestos claim in South Australia or Western Australia, register here or contact Tim White.