New Zealand asbestos activist Aire Grootegoed, 82, received a lifetime achievement award for his work in raising awareness of the health risks posed by asbestos at the Workplace Health and Safety Conference in April of 2008. Mr. Grootegoed lives in New Lynn, New Zealand, and has spent many years acting as a support and resource person for those afflicted with, and dying from, asbestos-related illnesses.
Although his own health problems (resulting from asbestos exposure during his career as a plumber) mean that he is more prone to lung infections than other people, he says he considers himself a lucky man when compared with the hundreds of laborers and tradesmen who died after exposure to the lethal fibrous mineral, which was used extensively and on a large scale in New Zealand’s building industry until the 1980s. Mr. Grootegoed works as a lobbyist and activist, asking politicians and industrial associations to impose tighter controls on asbestos, and to conduct research to gauge the exact extent of the exposure problem in New Zealand ’s industries.
Grootegoed became aware of asbestos as a problem when his doctors diagnosed him with an asbestos-related lung ailment in the 1990s. Grootegoed came to Auckland in 1962 and worked as a plumber, laboring on many large commercial projects. He noticed that he was coughing a lot and having one lung infection after another, but did not connect the issue to the asbestos exposure he was receiving on the job. He expressed only one regret – that his award was not shared with his companion Lois, his partner and friend for the last 17 years, before her death in 2007. Lois campaigned against asbestos along with him as the two of them traveled through New Zealand in a camper, visiting asbestos patients. “It was a pity she wasn’t there,” he says. “I accepted the award for myself and on her behalf. She was my partner and friend…I miss her terribly, we both loved art and working together. We were made for each other.” Grootegoed has continued his work alone, and says that despite progress made in New Zealand , the asbestos problem is taken much more seriously in other countries such as Australia . “They are tough in Australia where they have made decent efforts to clean up the poisonous material,” he says. “We haven’t here and the long term consequences won’t be very nice.”