ASBESTOS: the hidden time bomb
Earl Marchant was a fighter and an activist. He was a member of the Peace Forum. He was very active in the multicultural arts area and prominent in fighting for an arts centre in Gosford. He loved music and was always involved with musical groups and drumming. He fought for the health centre that has now been established for the Aborigines in Wyong and he worked very closely with the Aboriginal Land Council in Gosford. Many of our readers on the Central Coast of NSW and in Sydney knew and loved Earl. Earl was 67 when he died in January, 2001, having contracted mesothelioma, an asbestos related disease. His widow Marie very kindly spoke to The Guardian about their experience, one which unfortunately is far from an isolated case. One of the first things I'd like to say is that I knew very, very little as a lot of people do about asbestos until my husband got the disease. I just knew nothing. It was absolutely incredible. I'd read things but hadn't really absorbed them or taken them in. I just thought that it was a terrible thing and I didn't realise how hidden it is in society. I am more shocked now that I've found out so much more. I am more shocked now that it is not something that is talked about much more so that people working with asbestos can actually take safety measures so that they don't contract this terrible disease. That's one of the first things that hit me when my husband got the disease. The other thing was that how long it stays in the body before it actually shows itself. With my husband it was 17 years. I suppose I felt very resentful because he was not in a trade where you got asbestos diseases. He just came upon it accidentally. He had been working in silk-screen printing all his life and for seven years he worked in Sydney [commuting from Gosford] and was sick to death of getting up at about 5 o'clock in the morning and not getting home till about 7. He just said, "Look this is not living, this is just existing." He just walked in one Friday night and said, "I've packed up my job and I'll do anything, as long as I'm earning money and keeping my family comfortable." And he literally did. He kept himself employed for over seven years without a day off, just doing anything — window cleaning, handyman jobs. He was very talented; he could turn his hand to a lot of things. That's what he did. Then there was a slump in the building industry and builders were taking over the little jobs that he was doing. So he had to look further a field and somebody mentioned that there was terrific money in demolition work. Earl was very much an adventurer at heart. So he was two years in that and then went back into his silk-screening when there was more work available locally. He had no idea at all what he handled doing demolition work. He had no knowledge of the kind of material because he had never worked in anything to do with building or demolishing. He was never ever warned about the material that he was working with. He was never ever told to take any safety measures whatsoever. Yet he contracted the disease so quickly. It was quite a shock. He had an operation to remove part of his lung and nobody at any stage in the medical profession gave us information that we could actually use. No idea We really thought that we'd fight it. We were doing all sorts of things; getting involved in a lot of alternative health things and trying to live a very healthy life-style so that we could beat this thing. We had no idea that it was a life sentence until we joined the Asbestos Diseases Foundation. That was when we first knew that this was a very serious thing. Until then we had no idea that there was no way we could beat it, it was a death sentence. After the operation I asked the surgeon, "did you get it all?" And he said, "well we did, but we think we did but with this kind of thing you never know". Yet they know that with mesothelioma, once it is in the body there is no stopping it. I was never told the truth and neither was Earl. Now I could understand them not telling Earl because to tell somebody "look, you've got a short while to live" is a very hard thing. I was expecting somebody to tell me straight up, "look, this is a very serious situation". The only one that did that was Ella (Sweeny) at the Asbestos Foundation. She did not come right out with it but she said to me, "Marie, do you realise how serious this is?" I said "yes" flippantly. She said "I'm going to send you some material and I want you to make sure that your family are around you when you sit down and read this." Of course I didn't. I left this material and I wouldn't read it for weeks. And then suddenly one day I thought I've got to know. I just sat down in a room on my own without Earl and I read it. That was when I realised that it was a death sentence. I never ever let on to him. Apart from everything else, I have not stopped being amazed at how Earl coped with everything. Compensation hurdle I've had compensation. Because we joined the Asbestos Foundation I was able immediately, or Earl was able to seek compensation. The solicitors attached to the Asbestos Foundation, Freeman and Turner, took up the case. It was a very difficult situation because you have to prove that you worked with somebody and you had to prove that that's where you got the asbestos disease. It was so long ago, 17 years ago, Earl did not have any pay slips or anything. He remembered that he had pulled down a building in Taree and they had taken pictures of him slashing into the first wall and it was printed in the local Taree newspaper. So he phoned them and he talked to a young girl and told her his story. She spent a week hunting for this picture through the back pages of the paper. He told her roughly when he thought it was. She came back after a week and said "I've found it". He had a T-shirt on with the demolition company's name right across the front of it and the blurb about the bringing down the building. That was the proof that he needed. It showed that he had worked for that company. They proceeded then. They were going to have a court case in Sydney but Earl was so sick that he said couldn't attend in Sydney. So they brought the court case to him. The court case was held in our lounge room. I understand now that we were probably one of the last cases where they were allowed to do that. When I look back at it, I think how he put up with it and how I put up with it — I just don't know. It was absolutely horrific. He was stretched out on the couch and he was so ill and the judge postponed the case because there was a hitch as to which of two insurance companies could be sued. The judge said: "well Mr Marchant looks well enough for me to postpone this for another month", and he did. By the end of that month when the second court case was to be held he was gone. It went on without him in Sydney. They came to the same result in the end, as they would have done had he been here. I remember thinking at the time, "this is absolutely inhumane". It is shocking. I was so pleased to hear that they have done away with this and nobody else has to go through this. It was absolutely incredible. When I look back at it, I think how he put up with it and how I put up with it — I just don't know. If you'd been here it was horrific. It was absolutely horrific. He was stretched out on the couch and he Hidden from public I've spoken to people at the Support Group we established and they will tell you their whole story and then they'll come to compensation and say, "obviously I can't tell you how much I got because I'm sworn to secrecy". It's as bad as the cigarette manufacturers where everything is kept quiet or settled out of court so that the public never gets to hear. I'm more aware now how there is an actual lack of actual knowledge about the material, especially to people working with asbestos. And I worry about that. Many workers are still quite unaware of what they are actually working with. Or they may not be aware of the terrible dangers that they can just breathe it in. And there it is, they've got it. The wife of one the guys I was counselling the other day at a support groups died of mesothelioma in April. They both had been married before Her first husband had died of mesothelioma 12 years ago. And the reason: she used to bash his clothing on the line — you know how you used to do it with rugs in the old days to get the dust out. She would be banging the clothing to get the dust out of his clothes and she breathed in and got it but 12 years after him. Support group We started a support group here a few months ago and arranged the first meeting at the Central Coast Leagues Club in Gosford — and a hundred people turned up. They decided to hold another one in Newcastle. I can imagine that the numbers will far exceed a hundred because BHP was there, and the mines are and all the heavy industries. All those people who came to the meeting, all of them had it in some form or another. Not mesothelioma necessarily but some asbestos disease. There are a number of different diseases. I was shocked because I was expecting about 30 or 40 people. I just stood there and I thought for one minute. I thought of it as being successful but then I thought this is not successful, this is how many people are affected. I realise now that the earlier that you discover this disease the better. It seems that if you catch it early you may die in the end from it but you have the chance of a longer life and they can take some measures. I know that there are a lot of people who are just living with it. A lot of people think that they have to battle on and not get any help. Asbestos Awareness Week This week is Asbestos Awareness Week. On November 25 a lunch is being held in Sydney at the Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour to launch the Asbestos Week. It will be open by John Della Bosca MLC and the guest speaker will be Mr Anthony Coombs, a leading English asbestos litigation lawyer. We are going to have a bus taking members from Gosford — this has been donated by some kind person. You can't talk to just anybody about it you have to talk to somebody who has been through it themselves otherwise they haven't got a clue.
* * *Readers may contact Marie by fax: 02 4329 3820 or by phone: 02 432 5064.