Sick South African miners sue Anglo American in London

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South African gold miners suffering from a lung disease are suing a local subsidiary of Anglo American in London, potentially for hundreds of millions of pounds, lawyers said Wednesday.

A group of 450 mainly black ex-miners for the London-listed firm's South African subsidiary claim to have contracted silicosis over years of toiling underground due to company disregard for dust safety measures.

The case was filed at a London High Court.

"The miners allege they are suffering from silicosis and silico-tuberculosis from exposure to dangerous levels of dust on the company's South African gold mines," London-based law firm Leigh Day & Co said in a statement.

Cases of the disease -- caused by inhaling tiny dust particles that are a by-product of mining -- date back for decades, involving claims of excessive dust at mines until 1998, it said.

Symptoms can take up to 20 years to develop as the dust damages lung tissue, preventing oxygen from flowing into the body. There is no cure for silicosis, which makes victims more likely to catch other diseases like tuberculosis.

The law firm cited as a precedent a lawsuit in which 7,500 South African asbestos miners successfully sued British multinational Cape Plc for illnesses sustained from inhaling potentially fatal asbestos fibres.

Lawyer Richard Meeran accused Anglo of disregarding basic practices in the industry, like dust control measures that have existed for a century.

"What we allege is the disregard of the industry, in its drive for profit, for miners' health," he said.

According to Meeran, most miners were recruited to the mines from rural areas of the Eastern Cape province in South Africa and the neighbouring nations of Lesotho and Botswana.

"Some villages in the Eastern Cape, which is the hardest hit, have been decimated by diseases like silicosis and tuberculosis. The suffering is overwhelming," he said.

Meeran said he expected a bruising court battle with the mining giant, adding the 450 claimants were just "a tip of the iceberg".

Anglo says the mines were operated by other companies that it held stakes in, which were "responsible for the health and safety of their employees and took reasonable steps to protect them," spokesman Pranill Ramchander told AFP.

"Anglo American does not believe that it is any way liable for the silicosis claims brought by former gold workers and is defending the actions," he said.

One of the sick ex-miners who worked for different Anglo mines between 1964 and 1991, Daniel Thakamakau, said he could not begin to describe the suffering he has gone through since quitting work due to ill health.

The 65-year-old has silicosis and TB.

"The sickness has left me incapacitated. I haven't been able to care for myself since leaving employment 1991," said Thakamakau, who is originally from Lesotho.

"I am hurt. I would be happy to get compensation in my lifetime," he said.

Anglo American is one of the world's largest mining firms with interests in platinum, diamonds, iron ore and coal mining.

The company is the largest private employer in South Africa.

© 2011 AFP

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