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Victims raise the dust

Michael West
June 18, 2005 - 'ALL of the guys I used to work with on the shop floor when I was a supervisor. They're all dead, all gone. Just the other day, someone was talking about Charlie Borg. How old was he? Fifty-two or so. Dead. I don't know anyone in blasting or painting for Dimet who's still alive."

Nick Karakasch is one of the lucky ones. The other 55 or so painters and sandblasters he supervised are dead. Karakasch started on the factory floor as a clerk at the Dimet industrial coatings plant in Brooklyn in Melbourne.

Before he went out on his own as a protective coatings consultant, he had worked his way up to general manager of Dimet when it was owned by industrial products giant ACI.

With a big push now on in Canberra for a Senate inquiry into silicosis, the former Dimet executive has seen first-hand the damage wreaked on the Australian workforce by silica and other toxic chemicals.

Industry and government, Karakasch says, have a case to answer on compensating those dead and dying of lung disease. The manufacturers and suppliers of the silica, asbestos, strontium chromate, coal tar pitch, lead, tri-butyl tin oxide and other hazardous chemicals in protective coatings knew the dangers they presented to workers who inhaled them, he alleges. "Safety precautions? Yeah, there was a label on the container: 'If swallowed, seek medical advice'," he says.

They may not be in his lungs - yet - but asbestos, silica and other carcinogens are certainly in his blood.

Years ago, on Christmas Day, young Nick Karakasch and his brother Ian used to go down to the James Hardie asbestos plant at Brooklyn where his father worked. It was just next door to the Dimet plant where he forged his own career.

"It was a cloud of dust," he recalls. His father, Theo Karakasch, died of mesothelioma in 1972. His brother died of the same deadly disease, aged 57, only two years ago. He didn't even work for Hardie.

Both took Hardie to court and both won compensation. Now, Nick Karakasch, like another former Dimet worker, Richard White, and a group of top thoracic surgeons, believe Australia is on the cusp of another wave of dust disease: silicosis.

Richard Marles, assistant secretary of the ACTU, says dust-borne disease is the biggest killer in the Australian workplace today. "We are really at the peak of the bell curve of those who are dying of dust diseases," he says. "They are creating a tragedy which will see tens of thousands of Australians die. This is the great untold story in Australia at the moment."

Haydn Walters, director of medicine at Royal Hobart Hospital, can't put an estimate on it but he believes there are many former sandblasters, miners and spraypainters suffering from silicotic lung injuries who have not been diagnosed.

"It's a worldwide phenomenon," says Walters, who believes there could be an epidemic of disease in countries such as India and China with little or no workplace safety regulation. In Australia, although the link between silica and lung disease has been known for 100 years, adequate safety precautions were not in place until the 1980s.

"There is something about the very fine particles of freshly created silica. Silicosis is a nasty disease. It scars, shrinks and cavitates, then literally breaks down the lungs so people cough up black lumps of their own lung and they die of respiratory failure."

Like asbestos, the incubation period is long, from 10 to 30 years. For White, it was 20 years from exposure at Dimet's plant in the Northern Territory to diagnosis. White sought compensation through the courts but lost, both in the NT Supreme Court and on appeal in the High Court. His case was thrown out because he was a smoker.

The court accepted there were inadequate safeguards for exposure to hazardous chemicals, however. Karakasch and others contacted by Inquirer who worked for Dimet, ICI and protective coatings producer PGH all claim there were no safeguards.

White's boss in the NT, Barry Medley, who'd never been a smoker but has throat cancer and calcification of the lungs, reckons he was "never told any safety stuff. The wind blew the sand over over us. We copped all the dust." White and his co-workers constantly sucked in the fine silica particles swirling around the ships and aircraft whose surfaces they blasted. Another co-worker, Victor Fishwick, also has silicosis.

As with asbestos, exposed as a killer so acrimoniously last year in the James Hardie scandal, silicosis is the next, perhaps the last, wave of industrial disease in Australia. Most of its victims worked as miners, labourers, painters and blasters in the 1960s and '70s.

On Monday, Liberal senator Gary Humphries and senator Lynn Allison, leader of the Australian Democrats in the Senate, will champion the cause of dust disease victims by calling for a Senate inquiry into silicosis.

Their calls are supported by a group of thoracic experts including Walters and White's other specialists, David Bryant of the University of Sydney and St Vincent's Hospital, and Trevor Williams, respiratory consultant physician and clinical director, department of allergy, immunology and respiratory medicine at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne.

Occupational health and safety experts, the Catholic and Anglican churches, industry consultants and peak bodies such as the Australian Lung Foundation are also delivering submissions.

Williams told Inquirer last week: "There is a conventional link between lung disease and exposure to silica. This has been known since the late 1800s when they used a drill called the Widowmaker. Within a few years, the [worker's] lungs were shot. What has become more apparent recently is that there seems to bedifferent patterns of disease."

Cathy Bray, a physiotherapist with Breathe Easier Physiotherapy, says victims of industrial exposure to silica suffer a significant compromise in their quality of life.

"They can't be involved in normal things which people of their ages can be involved," she says. "They can't play with their children. In Richard White's case especially." The numbers of victims is unknown, she says. "Often it's diagnosed as something else. In rural places it's diagnosed as emphysema or lung cancer."

Industry is to blame, according to Bray. "Safety initiatives were rarely adopted at that time [1970s]," she says. "Precautions were not taken until the 1980s. Companies had external advice about masks and that [protective clothing] was starting to happen in the late 1970s.

"My experience in hospitals has been [with workers] in metals, sandblasting, ships, rust work, rural areas, machine maintenance. Any industry where blasting was involved in confined spaces. The therapy is expensive and they [victims] don't usually have the finances. [As to the companies], people were busy making money and ignoring issues of health. It must have occurred that there were risks. A lot of advice was ignored. Blasting was outlawed in England in 1949 and in NSW in 1959.

"What really happened with Richard's case was that the insurance companies seem to have endless funds to ensure that the victims have either died or are dying of lung disease. It's obscene. I'm gobsmacked at how aggressive these guys are. Win at any cost. There seems to be no regard for the human element of it. It [the lawsuit] was all conducted like a business transaction."

Tom Faunce, senior lecturer in the medicine and law faculties at the Australian National University, echoes Bray's sentiments. "There was an official culture of ignoring safety precautions," he says. "The question is, were government and industry aware that their practices were in breach?"

There is a prima facie case for theSenate inquiry, says Faunce. Richard White has amassed about 300 documented cases living and dead. Dimet had 5000 employees. There are maybe 10 other companies who operated similar practices.

The response from Australian corporates was muted this week. Company searches show that the many companies in the Dimet and PGH stables have been sold and restructured many times. Even if the company is wound up, however, the legal liability resides with the entity that last owned it.

ACI and private equity group CVC Asia Pacific are believed to own former PGH and Dimet entities respectively. A spokesman for ACI says he believed there is no residual liability.

Spokesmen for two potential corporates, Nylex and Orica (which now owns chemicals group ICI) did not provide responses by the time of publication yesterday.

A range of mining companies may also be liable in the event that the Senate inquiry finds for corporate compensation. BHP-Billiton, via its Whyalla operations, is also a potential corporate target.

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