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Gran versus the killer asbestos - VanGerven

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Posted 24 November 2014 - 04:55 PM

Gran versus the killer asbestos

Last updated 08:02 23/11/2014

Thom VanGerven looks impossibly sad, like a man who has given up the fight. His deflated, sallow face stares to the left of the camera, eyes too haunted to meet the lens. A mop of thinning, mousy hair sits to one side of a deeply furrowed brow. His lips are pursed and thin.

The contrast between that photo and one taken a few months prior is shocking.

Then, his plump cheeks propped up friendly, mischievous eyes - he was a school caretaker, canary breeder and trusted bird show judge. He had a spark for life before asbestos ripped through his lungs.

The rapid decline of Thom vanGerven has been attributed to asbestos fibres inhaled while he worked as a refractory bricklayer - shaping and breaking up bricks to repair retorts.

His 1997 death brought with it his widow Deidre's passionate obsession - the 73-year-old grandmother has spent most of her later life trying to get asbestos banned in its manufactured form in New Zealand. Asbestos has been banned in its raw form but imports of asbestos-containing materials are still permitted.

Recently, products labelled as containing no asbestos tested positive for the carcinogen.

The Government has said it will release an inventory of where asbestos can currently be found in imports - a waste of time, according to vanGerven. The Environment Ministry says no date has been set for the inventory's release, though the process is under way.

The carcinogen has claimed the lives and livelihoods of three others in vanGerven's immediate family. Her sister, Yvonne (who was "beautiful and lovely"), died of ovarian cancer thought to have stemmed from asbestos in her talcum powder. Her father died of what was most probably asbestosis, where asbestos fibres curl around the lung lining, slowly suffocating the victim. He was a painter at the local hospital where he is believed to have inhaled asbestos fibres.

Her brother, Neville, lives in Australia and has been diagnosed with the same - he has a wheezing, tentative grasp on life and doesn't like to talk about what is wrong with him.

From a small L-shaped desk in the corner of her modest dining room, vanGerven sits for five or six hours a day writing letters.

Folders of documents, photos, case studies and medical information form high, teetering stacks on either side of her small, plump frame. Her middle-aged son, Thomas, lives in an adjoining flat and checks on her constantly - she often forgets to eat or drink.

VanGerven is persistent - toddling on a wooden cane, back and forth from her couch to her desk, to produce document after document to back her argument.

A constant barrage of information chatters out of her mouth - non-stop facts and figures about asbestos, mesothelioma, asbestosis and government policy.

She speaks to sufferers overseas and diligently adds their stories to her lists. She lobbies ministers ("those idiots"), reaches out to public officials, and recently hosted Masterton Mayor Lynn Paterson, to lecture her, for a few hours.

She says if Patterson didn't know much about asbestos when she arrived, she certainly knew a lot by the time she left.

Patterson agrees, saying she takes her hat off to vanGerven's tenacity and determination and has promised some sort of local action.

VanGerven smiles a lot, rolls her eyes at the idiots in suits who refuse to listen, grimaces at the lack of action.

And what if she were successful? She leans back on her couch, tense body relaxing finally and a relieved smile settling over her round face as she imagines achieving her goal. "Well it would have to feel pretty good, wouldn't it?"

Deidre and Thom met over a milkshake at the local Sunshine Milk Bar in 1960. He asked her to the pictures - "Well I liked Thom right away and so we went" - and 18 months later, when she was 19 and he was 25, they were married.

Fast-forward around 30 years. They had three kids and had moved around six different houses in and around Masterton and Wellington.

They were happy and ready to settle into later life together.

She couldn't have known that every day he went off to work as a bricklayer, he was inhaling more and more of the stuff that would lead to his painful death. Or that the asbestos rope he used to bring home from work was letting off tiny toxic fibres around the house while their children played with it.

Months after their 33rd wedding anniversary, after bouts of what they thought was flu, which was then mistakenly diagnosed as pneumonia, the doctors recognised mesothelioma.

It's a rare cancer with no cure and often a poor prognosis - Thom was told to go home and sort his affairs out: nothing could be done. This was where his unquestioning and placid nature gave up hope.

It's the carcinogen that would come to define their relationship. Banning it in all forms from New Zealand shores is the legacy Deidre wants from Thom's life and death.

VanGerven's own home is covered in it. Off-white asbestos siding tiles sit side by side on her modest home's exterior. Because of the age of her house, asbestos will be all through the interior, too. "But I feel quite safe in mine because I've personally had seven coats of paint put on it. So I'm quite happy with how it looks."

VanGerven's Masterton street is quiet and quaint. Driving around her neighbourhood, she knows of many potential lurking threats from the asbestos era. "It's scary isn't it? The bottom of that one there, that looks like asbestos and that's all breaking away.

"Anyone that's around, the fibres could be going anywhere. Look at the paint, they're probably going to sand that down and paint it soon and that's asbestos. There's a lot of it, isn't there?

"Some of them are in good nick but then you get the ones with no paint on them. See that one there, it's all dirty. If they come out to wash it with a hose and a brush, well it's asbestos. You can hose it down but you can't scrub it or sand it before you paint it.

"Look, even if you've got a wooden house, you'll still have asbestos. That's asbestos above those weatherboards."

"And out the back there . . ."

A weatherboard house hosts an asbestos-clad shed out the back. It sits in a state of decay awaiting demolition.

When asbestos was discovered, it seemed like a miracle substance. The heatproof, fire-resistant, naturally occurring material was pumped into houses at manic rates, peaking in the mid 1970s when more than 12,500 tonnes was being imported.

Today, Auckland regional public health service receives a number of calls on asbestos as one of the more common health risks in homes.

Medical officer of health Denise Barnfather
says asbestos is only dangerous if degraded and if fibres are inhaled. "If you breathe this dust in, fibres can get stuck in your lungs. The risk to health increases with the number of fibres inhaled and with frequency of exposure. Enough exposure to asbestos fibres can lead to health conditions including breathing difficulties, asbestosis and even lung cancer in severe cases."

New Zealand's love affair with asbestos began in the 1940s. Those sought-after bungalows and villas so often ripped apart by ambitious DIYers are packed with the toxin in everything from exterior eaves, ceiling insulation and flooring.

It is commonly found in tiles, pipe insulation, boilers, sprayed coatings and vinyl backings. It was also used in the backing of some vinyl wallpapers, inside fireplaces and throughout textured ceilings.

It's been used in car gaskets and even dental fillings.

If these products are well-maintained there is no risk associated with them - it is when they are disturbed that a problem occurs.

As the risk associated with asbestos became widely known in the 1980s it was banned in its raw form but still imported in manufactured products.

For someone who has dedicated her later life to researching a toxic substance with horrendous side-effects, vanGerven isn't a hypochondriac. Her research is studious and scientific. Every fact and figure precise.

She drives fast on the roads, out-talks the occasional prank callers trying to scare her with dirty talk and adopts foster dogs with aggressive pasts. She's not a worry-wart.

What vanGerven has been lobbying for these past years is for New Zealand Government policy to come into line with other countries like Australia: to ban asbestos even in its manufactured form.

"They're busy taking asbestos out and here they are putting it into new buildings. In Australia you've got to prove that those products don't contain asbestos and they should be doing that in New Zealand."

And she wants more awareness for tradies, mechanics, home renovators and renters on the dangers of asbestos if it is disturbed or degraded. "Because the young people working with it now . . . they can't think ahead to when they're 60 and they might die from this disease."

Her main aim is to stop more people going through what her family has been through.

"Thom's death was a waste. He never should have died. It was just for greed. I would consider it murder in a way. The people who knew about asbestos, they were still murdering. They were still killing people because they weren't telling people."

Thom's mesothelioma took him over rapidly. One last-ditch attempt at chemotherapy meant he couldn't swallow and had to be kept on a drip in a hospice for his final few weeks.

VanGerven sat with him every day, leaving only to shower and get new clothes from home. "I went back in the room one day and just when I went back in the room . . . he just died, quietly. After he died, I started looking into it. I was very, very angry.

"It still brasses me off."

VanGerven has her own website: simple, poetic and calm. And she has the backing of asbestos experts.

Wellington-based Capital Environmental Services manager Jackie Herring says she is aware of products coming in at the border containing asbestos; some is even labelled asbestos-free but actually contains asbestos. "There's still a loophole . . . there needs to be tighter regulations regarding that because, at one end of the spectrum, you are trying to reduce the exposure and remove the hazard but, at the other end, they are importing it."

So far the response from the Government has been far from promising.

Is vanGerven hopeful new Environment Minister Nick Smith will make progress on the issue? "I'm about as hopeful as with Amy Adams. It's a waste of time, but one day they won't be there and someone else might come in.

"Until you have had someone die in your family, you don't think it's so serious. You haven't seen what it can do to people.

"If I give up, it's a waste of all those years. I've had no other life, my life has been doing this, and that brasses me off because I think about all the things I could have been doing but my money has gone into doing this."

Former environment minister Amy Adams
says work on an asbestos inventory began earlier this year. The aim is to increase understanding of how much asbestos is being imported and what it is being used for. "After work on the inventory is completed, the next stage will be looking at whether the Government needs to take steps to control importation of these products and what is the best approach for this."

VanGerven says while time is being wasted on an inventory, dangerous products are being brought in and used "willy-nilly".

"Every month that they're leaving it, that's more products coming into New Zealand that will kill more people."

- Stuff

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