Asbestos stalks Baryulgil community
IN Baryulgil, the children used to build their castles in asbestos sandpits and compete against each other on asbestos volleyball courts. Barely 30 years later, almost 20 past and present residents of the tiny northern NSW Aboriginal community suffer asbestos-related illness and many are dying of cancer. Asbestos manufacturer James Hardie, which has been at the centre of a political storm over its compensation liabilities, operated an asbestos mine in Baryulgil from the 1950s to 1979. A health expert last week described as an epidemic the malady stalking the settlement of barely 100 people, about 80km north-west of Grafton. Dr Ray Jones, from the Grafton Aboriginal Medical Service, said the number of people with asbestos-related illnesses had risen from six to 18 in the past three months ? the victims identified through a screening program. Some were only in their 30s, while the most severely ill were in their 40s, he said. The Dust Diseases Board initiated screening of the children of former miners in March. The Grafton Aboriginal Medical Service has continued the program. Dr Jones said nearly all the miners had died, and those battling sickness were their children, most of whom were now aged 30 to 50 and lived
elsewhere but had lived around the mine in their younger days. "The kids used to play in the asbestos pits," Dr Jones said. "They used to use asbestos at the school for the sandpits and the volleyball court was made of asbestos." He said he was troubled by the outbreak of respiratory diseases, which he believed was a direct result of asbestos exposure. "We're seeing a small epidemic of cancer and a major epidemic of respiratory diseases in Baryulgil," Dr Jones said. "It's frustrating. The dangers of asbestos were known at the time this mine was operating. "The fact the mine was allowed to run with such poor work practices, that it allowed children to play in the pits, is just insane ? it beggars belief." Although many people in the community smoked, smoking-related diseases normally presented in patients aged in their 60s, while people 20 years younger than that were developing illnesses. "I believe they are directly related to asbestos exposure," he said. "A lot of them have significant X-ray signs of asbestosis-related damage to their lungs." Dr Jones said several of the more severely-ill asbestos victims who had lived in Baryulgil had employed Sydney law firm Stephen Smart and Associates to work on a possible law suit against James Hardie.