Some might call it karma. In addition to its history of racist apartheid policies, South Africa once had a thriving asbestos industry; in fact, one type of deadly amphibole asbestos, known as amosite, was named for the company that mined the substance (Asbestos Mines Of South Africa). It was the study of South African asbestos miners during the late 1950s and early 1960s that helped medical researchers to identify mesothelioma as a disease distinct from lung cancer and establish asbestos exposure as the sole cause. South Africa’s asbestos industry thankfully went the way of its misguided apartheid laws in the 1980s. However, the legacy remains; like Australians, South Africans continue to suffer abnormally high rates of asbestos disease. One of its most recent victims was a nineteen-year-old. Amazingly, the sale and use of asbestos in South Africa is still completely legal. However, the government of that country has recently announced pending legislation that would ban asbestos completely.
As is the case in the United States, asbestos was used extensively in South Africa in the construction of homes and commercial buildings. According to Dr. Shaheida Adams, who works in South Africa’s analogue to OSHA, that country’s asbestos disease epidemic has just begun. While the government’s proposed ban on asbestos is admirable, the fact is that asbestos diseases normally have a long latency period; symptoms often do not manifest themselves until decades after initial exposure. “We are actually hitting the asbestos epidemic now,” Dr. Adams says. “On top of that, people in the Northern Cape are still exposed to secondary pollution from asbestos as a result of the fibre being used in their homes and buildings and to insulate structures in that area.” Even if the government’s ban on asbestos should become law, Dr. Adams fears that South Africa will be seeing a high number of asbestos disease victims over the coming decades. South Africans suffering from asbestos disease can turn to the Asbestos Relief Trust, a charitable organization founded in 2003 and headquartered in Johannesburg.