Asbestos blues: labour, capital, physicians and the state in South Africa

By Jock McCulloch Published by James Currey, Oxford, England, and Indiana University Press, Bloomington, USA, 2002. ISBN 0 85255 862 7, price £12.95

  The history of asbestos is a remarkable one of shifting attitudes towards this substance, from "magic mineral" in the early days to "killer dust" in the end. It unfolds as the epidemiological evidence was slowly compiled, then concealed, and then, at last, disseminated. For health professionals internationally, the rise and fall of asbestos in South Africa provides a telling account of short-sightedness, the limits of human understanding and of science, and ethical conflict. Given the global public health importance of asbestos, there are surprisingly few books on its history, or on its impact in local contexts, and perhaps no others at all that are written with such well- informed depth of feeling.

McCulloch's book is a particularly interesting record of asbestos in one country, its relation with the international industry, and its companies, workers and communities. It is inspired by the author's long-standing interest in the health of workers and their communities, and his commitment to documenting the abuses of power and information that affect them. The publisher is a small, radical one, equally committed to publicizing unusual and important stories, particularly from the South. It forms part of a well-regarded dogma-challenging series called "African Issues".

Asbestos blues is wide-ranging and readable, looking at the history of the global industry, the mines, the companies, the medical history of asbestos, the difficult lives of the men and women working in the mines, and the role of the state. It includes a critical account of epidemiology in the context of a socially divided African state with a strong transnational company presence, offering valuable insights for anyone with an interest in the interaction of science and policy. A particular strength is in the range of sources the author has brought together, with primary interviews, archives and published books and papers combined to tell a deeply human story of greed, power — and courage.

There is some repetition in the book and it is not for those who like to keep the world neatly divided into disciplinary slices. In examining the complex economic and social processes and their health outcomes, it encompasses the real, messy, political world of public health. In this sense, Asbestos blues tells a timely and widely relevant public health story, by documenting the asbestos background of recent ground-breaking rulings against transnational corporations. These may lead to new powers for communities in the South to claim due recognition and compensation for health damage done by companies working in their countries. Asbestos blues provides a valuable case study of how a major harmful industry falls, and how in this case communities, unions, epidemiologists, lawyers, public health professionals and a Southern state finally came together to work for public health and social justice. It is a well-told salutary tale.&nbsp

Carolyn Stephens
Senior Lecturer, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London WC 1E 7HT, England (email:

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