Bernie Banton

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When most people think of the deadly asbestos cancer mesothelioma, they may recall that actor and race-car driver Steve McQueen died from the disease. Or they may have heard, more recently, that Variety columnist Army Archerd was also stricken with mesothelioma. One name that is not so familiar, but that may be even more important in the annals of asbestos’s dangerous history, is that of Bernie Banton.

Born Bernard Douglas Banton in 1946 to a family in Sydney, Australia, Bernie Banton did not set out to be a social justice campaigner, but instead began his career at the Camellia plant of Australian building products giant James Hardie. From 1968 to 1974 he worked as a lathe operator, shaping blocks of asbestos for use in power stations and making asbestos pipe sections. Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral which was once regarded as a “miracle substance” for its ability to insulate and strengthen other building materials, was widely used until the late 1970s, when reports of its toxic nature began to surface.

When asbestos is cut, broken, or otherwise damaged, it releases a particulate into the surrounding environment. This particulate is composed of microscopic fibers, which are sharp and needle-like; they can penetrate deeply into the body’s soft tissues, especially a protective membrane called the mesothelium, which lines the chest cavity and surrounds the lungs. The fibers can then cause a number of serious medical conditions, including pleural plaques, asbestosis and mesothelioma.

One of the rarest, but most serious cancers, mesothelioma has been conclusively traced back to asbestos exposure, usually occupational, in 90 percent of cases. In the remaining cases, asbestos exposure is suspected as the cause, but not confirmed. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of mesothelioma is that it develops silently within the body, not manifesting itself symptomatically until sometimes decades after the exposure has taken place. That means that an asbestos worker can have already contracted mesothelioma, but not know it for years. At the time when it is finally diagnosed, the mesothelioma is generally so advanced as to be inoperable and resistant to other forms of treatment such as chemotherapy and radiation.

Bernie Banton was diagnosed with asbestosis, a chronic, non-malignant condition of the lungs, in 1999, after experiencing breathing difficulties during a family ski trip the previous year. In 2007, he was further diagnosed with mesothelioma and asbestos-related pleural disease (ARPD). These conditions obligated Banton to carry an oxygen tank with him wherever he went, and also caused him pain, shortness of breath and difficulty speaking.

Banton sued James Hardie for negligence, just one of an estimated 12,500 claims made against the company for asbestos-related diseases, according to the Australian Council of Trade Unions. In 2000, he received $800,000 in compensation from the company. The next year, Bernie’s brother Ted, died of mesothelioma, which spurred Banton to become an advocate for patients diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, and to campaign for both awareness of these diseases and compensation for those who had contracted them on the job. In 2002, Banton became the vice-president of the Asbestos Diseases Federation of Australia.

James Hardie then began a series of restructuring and relocations in order to cope with the increased caseload of asbestos lawsuits. The parent company organized its two asbestos-producing subsidiaries into a trust known as the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation (MRCF), then moved its headquarters to the Netherlands in a bid to gain tax advantages. The MRCF, Hardie assured former asbestos workers, had assets of $293 million (AU)—enough to cover all compensation in asbestos cases, but that turned out not to be the case. A New South Wales special commission of inquiry was formed in 2004 to look into the matter, and their hearings were often attended by Banton. As public interest in, and outrage about, the Hardie compensation fund’s shortfall began to grow, Banton became an ideal spokesperson and representative. He was an Everyman, battling big business and government cover-up, who was articulate and passionate about the cause of asbestos diseases.

Banton was appointed by NSW premier Bob Carr to help negotiate a settlement with Hardie, and as a result, Banton helped secure compensation for thousands of sufferers just like himself, to the tune of a $1.5 billion trust set forth by Hardie. For his tireless work on behalf of those who have been affected by the carcinogen asbestos, Bernie Banton was declared a member of the Order of Australia in 2005.

When the palliative-care drug Alimta, used often in combination chemotherapyfor mesothelioma sufferers, came on the market, Banton lobbied for government subsidies for it. He was involved in a controversial disturbance with Health Minister Tony Abbott in the middle of the 2007 federal election campaign, when he called Abbott on the carpet for not attending a pre-arranged meeting at which he would have received a petition calling for the inclusion of Alimta into the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Abbott called the petition a publicity stunt and criticized Banton’s motives. He later apologized, but it was nearly too late—Banton died just three days after the November 2007 election. In his victory speech, Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd praised Banton’s efforts to fight for social justice, calling him a representative of the “great Australian trade union movement.”

Banton’s widow, Karen, and their children accepted the New South Wales government’s offer of a state funeral for their beloved husband and father. The funeral was held on December 5, 2007, and on that day both the Australian and NSW state flags on all government buildings were lowered to half-mast as a sign of mourning and respect.

In January 2009, an asbestos diseases research institute, called the Bernie Banton Centre, was opened at Sydney’s Concord Repatriation General Hospital. The Centre helps provide education, compassion and hope to sufferers of mesothelioma—much as Bernie Banton himself did.