Broadcast on ABC TV, this two part mini-series is a devastatingly emotional portrayal of the impact of asbestos on Australian workers and the community at large over many decades. Based on the book Killer Company, the film charts the decades long pursuit of asbestos manufacturer James Hardie by investigative journalist Matt Peacock, culminating in a high profile court case spearheaded by asbestos disease victim Bernie Banton, once a worker at the company.
This is powerful, gut wrenching television. The opening scenes of factory workers coated in asbestos dust highlights the outlandish disregard for workplace safety by the multinational company. A company that was fully aware of the dangers of asbestos to human health, but was prepared to not only ignore risks, but to actively suppress the relevant health information in the pursuit of profits.
Cognizant of potential liability, the company eventually exits the asbestos mining and manufacturing business, but the health impacts of mesothelioma continue to mount over the subsequent years. The horrifying effects of the disease reach far beyond the factory workers, as members of the wider public suffer devastating consequences. Factory workers, builders, the wives of workers exposed to asbestos, individuals renovating homes or replacing carpet, even children exposed during building works.
Perhaps the most outrageous treatment is directed towards indigenous communities involved in asbestos mining, as we see Matt Peacock visit an outback asbestos mine where the indigenous workers are constantly covered in dust without the slightest of mitigation measures. As the killer dust blows through the surrounding area and into the nearby settlement, indigenous children are seen playing in piles of asbestos dust. Peacock is clearly traumatised to learn that indigenous workers are already sick and dying from mesothelioma, without any access to public health support. One indigenous worker asks Peacock about his life expectancy and how long his children will live. Decades later Peacock returns to the settlement to watch this man gasp for air on his deathbed. The heartlessness and cruelty of the situation is beyond words.
With workmates and family now falling victim to mesothelioma and dying horrific deaths, Bernie Banton discovers that he too has contracted the disease. Despite deteriorating health Banton displays heroic courage and fortitude as he teams up with Peacock and a legal team to bring James Hardie to justice. Aided by expensive corporate lawyers and media spin doctors, the company largely absconds from its responsibility by splitting the company and relocating overseas. The legal proceedings gained much public attention and there is an emotional scene in which Bernie Banton introduces NSW Premiere Bob Carr to asbestos victims, including a woman in a wheel chair on oxygen, flanked by her own young daughter. This woman tells Carr that she contracted the disease because her father built an extension on their house when she was a child, so that she could have her own room.
Much of the story revolves around the spin doctor Adam Bourke, whose own wife dies from mesothelioma due to a home renovation performed years earlier. However, Bourke is a fictitious composite character  used as a narrative device, which may have given the filmmakers a little too much dramatic license on occasions. Devil’s Dust is Australian television drama at its finest. It is also the most powerful and convincing yet of the need for workplace safety, adequate regulatory oversight, protections from corporate greed and malfeasance and just plain respect and care for our fellow human beings. The film ends with text stating that by 2030, over 60,000 Australians will have died from asbestos exposure, more than World War One.
 Peacock M. (2009), Killer Company, Sydney; ABC Books.
 Delaney C. (2012) ABC reveals look at James Hardie asbestos saga Devil’s Dust, Mumbrella [website], accessed March 6, 2023 <https://mumbrella.com.au/abc-reveals-look-at-james-hardie-asbestos-saga-devils-dust-123400>
- Broadcast on ABC TV, 2012.
Author: J Bird, 2023