Diane Randall, of Yamba, was exposed to asbestos after it was dumped indiscriminately at Baryulgil.
Diane Randall, of Yamba, was exposed to asbestos after it was dumped indiscriminately at Baryulgil. Marc Stapelberg

TIMEBOMB: The deadly legacy asbestos leaves behind

WHEN Diane Randall played innocently in the grounds of Baryulgil Public School 40 years ago, she never could have suspected the danger she and her childhood friends were exposed to.

Asbestos dust was everywhere.

The Yamba woman joked about still having all her teeth because the students were required to brush twice a day in the school bubblers after recess and lunch - a commendable public health initiative.

But while the students were fighting decay, their lungs were breathing in something far more sinister.

"Asbestos to us was just gravel or sand - just another material to play in," she said.

"It was everywhere - just like the dirt we played in when we made mud pies. We used asbestos (for that), too."

Innocent memories of childhood have become darkened by fear for Ms Randall and her siblings since their brother Ffloyd Laurie, 55, was diagnosed and then died last month from the killer asbestos disease mesothelioma.

Ffloyd was the first of what could be more cases of the disease affecting people who grew up in Baryulgil, a small village in the Upper Clarence Valley whose economy revolved around a James Hardie asbestos mine which operated from 1943 to 1979.

The disease typically lies dormant for up to 40 years before becoming activated.

Ms Randall said her father and uncles, who all worked at the Baryulgil mine, were still beset with horrible asbestos-related diseases - but not mesothelioma.

"Dad suffered for years and years with all this respiratory stuff," she said.

Ffloyd Laurie, pictured with wife Noelene, had the deadly asbestos cancer mesothelioma, which he contracted while growing up in Baryulgil, near the old James Hardie asbestos mine.
Ffloyd Laurie, pictured with wife Noelene, had the deadly asbestos cancer mesothelioma, which he contracted while growing up in Baryulgil, near the old James Hardie asbestos mine. Hamish Broome

"One of my uncles had one of his lungs removed (and) all of his rib cage had to be taken out. You could actually see all of his chest rising and falling because he had all of these operations.

"But none of them had what Ffloyd had. It was excruciating watching Ffloyd suffer the way he did ... just the breathlessness, the suffocating.

"It was like you are slowly drowning."

Mr Laurie's siblings now have to face the painful task of grieving for their loved one while dealing with the reality of their own exposure to the dust.

A network of about 50 former Baryulgil children is centred around Casino and Grafton, and keeps in close contact.

"We're all living with the fear," Ms Randall said.

"My lungs are probably lined with the plaque, but then it takes a trigger and then it starts.

"You're sitting on a ticking time bomb. You've just got to put your affairs in order once you're diagnosed, and do it quickly. Once you're diagnosed it is a death sentence."

Ffloyd Laurie pictured with his grandson Emmit shortly before his death last month.
Ffloyd Laurie pictured with his grandson Emmit shortly before his death last month. Contributed

'Unbelievable' exposure

A former Grafton GP who spent 15 years treating residents of Baryulgil said the exposure of the community to asbestos was "unbelievable".

Dr Ray Jones said he had treated hundreds of people, including former students of the school, for asbestos- related diseases during his time servicing Baryulgil between 2000 and 2015.

"As far as I know ... of the workers, 90% of them are dead as a result of their exposure," he said.

"Most of them died from asbestos-related illnesses.

"Before I left the children who had been through the school had started to get cancer. Cancer you would attribute to asbestos - lung cancer, respiratory cancer. People in their 40s who were getting cancers they shouldn't have got at all. There was an inordinate number of them.

"For a small community the rate of cancers was huge."

While mesothelioma is the only disease exclusively attributable to asbestos, Dr Jones said it was obvious that asbestos was to blame for the other health problems.

"Asbestos gets on your body. You swallow it, so you get cancer in your nose, your eyes - all through your body," he said.

"The exposure was just unbelievable. These were little kids - they were five year olds.

"It's a massive blot on Western civilisation that the dollar is so important that people are prepared to put others at risk for financial gain."

Dr Jones said because of the delay in the onset of mesothelioma, the peak of the disease was not expected until 2020.



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