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Section one: Asbestos and Africa
TOPIC SECTION:
Asbestos and Africa
South Africa was the only country in the world where the three main types of asbestos - crocidolite, amosite and chrysotile - were mined. Asbestos mining began between 1893 and 1915 in the northern Cape and northeastern Tra
Image: Kliphuis mine in Prieska, South Africa
Kliphuis mine in Prieska, South Africa, where the women are picking out blue asbestos (crocidolite) Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
nsvaal, whose economies became dependent on mineral extraction. The economic boom after the Second World War created strong markets for asbestos and its output value in South Africa nearly trebled in the 1950s. Production in 1960 approached 200,000 tons, and increased with the introduction of heavy machinery.

Dust-creating pneumatic drills were especially hazardous and many more of the 1000 white and more than 20,000 black and ‘coloured’ workers began to contract asbestosis after short periods of employment. As conditions deteriorated, the Department of Mines took a greater interest in asbestos mines.

The connection between asbestos and mesothelioma was made at the West End Hospital in Kimberley, near the asbestos mines. The hospi
Image: working at a mine in the north-west Cape district of South Africa
A woman, possibly holding a baby, working at a mine in the north-west Cape district of South Africa
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
tal’s first medical superintendent, Chris Sleggs, recognised atypical cases of lung disease in the hospital’s wards. While most cases of tuberculosis recovered with treatment, these cases appeared resistant to drug therapy. In the mid-1950s, Sleggs alerted a wider community of practitioners and researchers, including Chris Wagner, a doctoral candidate in Johannesburg who was researching the occupational hazards of as
'Despite the proven connection between [them] the volumes of asbestos fibre sold during the 1960s and 1970s grew to record levels'
bestos mining. Wagner was joined by a team that included a pathologist, Ian Webster, and a thoracic surgeon, Paul Marchand. Members visited mining towns and documented the connection between mesothelioma and asbestos. Of the 33 cases of pleural mesothelioma investigated by the researchers, 32 had involved exposure to asbestos mining, often indirectly and over short periods. In 1959 the findings were presented at an international conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. The results were subsequently published in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Given the economic implications of the study, senior officers in the South African Department of Health demanded that subsequent papers be subjected to industry review. Despite the proven connection between asbestos and mesothelioma, the volumes of asbestos fibre sold during the 1960s and 1970s grew to record levels. The last of the crocidolite mines closed as late as 1996. Wagner’s publication, on the other hand, has since become the most cited paper in industrial medicine.
 
 
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Section two: Life and death in Belfast
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Through the work of Dr Elmes and Dr Wade, the high prevalence of mesothelioma in Belfast dock workers was identified.  > more

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Section three: Fireproofing industrial society
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Asbestos appeared the perfect product for a rapidly industrialising world. It helped prevent fires and its proliferation was linked to a reduced incidence of fire-related deaths in the western world.  > more
 
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