Asbestos: The final reckoning

The deadly legacy left by asbestos is again in the news as victims are forced to accept less than a quarter of the compensation to which they are entitled. Peter Lazenby looks at background to an industry which will continue to claim victims for decades to come.

THE FIRST asbestos products appeared in Britain in 1857.

Over the following century asbestos was adapted for widespread uses including hairdriers, brakepads, oven gloves and lagging for water pipes. It was used in the construction of ships and buildings and in the operation of presses in tailoring factories.

And from the day it came into use it began to kill.

Asbestos causes cancer. Inhalation of the tiniest, microscopic fibre is sufficient to start a cancer which can take more than 50 years to show itself.

Official recognition of the dangers of the mineral first came in the 1890s when Government factory inspectors recorded a high incidence of respiratory diseases among asbestos workers. The warnings were ignored.

Use of asbestos in the 1900s continued to spread – millions of tonnes, much of it mined in South Africa, were imported to the UK for use in construction of public buildings, factories and homes.

In Leeds the J W Roberts factory, an asbestos textile plant, was the source of a tragedy which continues today.

Children played on asbestos bales in the factory yard sending up clouds of asbestos dust. Dust from the factory gathered on roofs and in the streets. It covered the playground of the local primary school, where children made summer "snowballs" with it.

The dust was carried home on the overalls of workers from the factory and there are records of wives, sons and daughters who contracted cancer from their contact with a relative's clothing.

Throughout the mid-1900s a growing body of evidence emerged revealing the deadly effects of asbestos. In 1955 Professor Richard Doll, a radical scientist, produced damning evidence of what was happening. The company which commissioned him – Turner Newall – attempted to suppress it.

At the J W Roberts factory between 1931 and 1958, when the factory closed, 270 workers were suspended from work suffering asbestos-related diseases. At least 300 former employees are believed to have died from asbestos-related illnesses, from a factory which at its peak employed 250 people.

A growing number of cancer deaths in the Armley area were traced to the former factory in 1988 as a result of an investigation by the Yorkshire Evening Post. Leeds West Labour MP John Battle called for a government inquiry which was rejected by the Conservative government.

Over the years since then the death toll has risen, with reports of mesothelioma claiming former Armley residents who long since left the district – one of them in Australia. Mr Battle believes the eventual death toll could be even worse than predicted, and one Leeds medical expert says asbestos-related cancer attributable to the J W Roberts operation will claim 300 more victims before the effects of the factory's activities begin to fade.

Nationally, last year over 3,500 people in the UK died from asbestos-related diseases. Among them were 1,700 who died from mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung which usually brings deaths within 12 months of diagnosis. There is no treatment for mesothelioma, let along a cure.


The Trades Union Congress estimates that by 2020 the annual death toll in the UK from asbestos-related diseases will be 10,000, and that over the next 35 years half a million people in western Europe will die from the same causes.

The court battle launched in 1993 by June Hancock, the Armley woman who contracted mesothelioma and sued the JW Roberts factory's owners, Turner Newall, revealed how the factory owners had ignored and had even disguised and hidden the growing evidence of the dangers of asbestos.

Governments were slow to legislate, again despite the growing evidence.

Mrs Hancock won her battle for compensation in 1996. It took nearly three years, and the court attacked the company for its cynical ploy of delaying the case at every opportunity in the knowledge that Mrs Hancock was dying and might not last the course. The fact that she did live long enough to win, defying the odds by surviving for over three years with a disease which normally kills within 12 months, is a testament to her determination.

Mrs Hancock thought her victory was complete. But four years after her death the US multi-national company which took over Turner Newall in the 1990s, Federal Mogul, acted to protect itself from the growing number of victims suing for compensation.

It went into voluntary liquidation using United States laws which enabled it to continue trading and making money, while freezing its debts,

That was in 2001. For four years legal wrangles and negotiations have gone on between company representatives and lawyers representing victims.


The deal struck, 24p in the , is the outcome. When the wrangling started solicitors Irwin Mitchell represented 50 victims of what became known as the Armley asbestos tragedy. All are now dead and will not even receive the 24p in the pound.

The Armley asbestos tragedy has been repeated in communities across Britain. In Rochdale another Turner Newall factory employed 2,000 shopfloor workers and 2,000 white-collar staff. Not only are former employees still dying in Rochdale, the site of the factory is now a rubble-strewn wasteland contaminated by asbestos.

On the Clyde and in the North East, Britain's defunct shipbuilding industry has claimed hundreds of victims. More emerge every month as deadly mesothelioma continues to show itself, sometimes over 50 years after the person's contact with asbestos.

The construction industry continues to exact its toll of victims, such was the widespread use of asbestos in building homes, schools, factories and hospitals.

Nowhere appears free of the threat.

Joyce Ives, 65, of Kirkstall in Leeds, lost her husband Trevor to the killer disease in 2002.

The couple had for many years run the Cardigan Arms pub on Kirkstall Road. Mr Ives came into contact with asbestos in the cellar, where asbestos lagging had broken up and was hanging from pipework.

"My husband lost his life because of asbestos," Joyce said. "Since his death, I have had to pick up the pieces and try to rebuild a life for myself but it is very tough. I feel very bitter that so much was known about asbestos all those years ago, but so little was done to protect workers like my late husband."

Legislation to control the use of asbestos has crept onto the statute books piecemeal. In May, 1970, the British Government introduced new regulations controlling the way industry could use asbestos.

Further regulations since then have severely limited asbestos use, and its importation is now banned.

The legacy however continues. Mesothelioma's incubation period means that new victims will continue to emerge for probably at least two more decades.

In addition, the scale of use of asbestos in construction means that an estimated half a million workplaces and public buildings and a million homes are still contaminated.

The existence of asbestos in a building does not automatically put people in the building at serious risk. Asbestos becomes a problem when it begins to degenerate and its fibres break up into the atmosphere – such as damaged lagging around pipes.

The problems have spawned another industry – asbestos disposal. Specialist firms now have to be called in to deal with and dispose of asbestos when buildings are demolished, or where it is found to be in a dangerous condition.

The vast majority are reputable but even this industry is not free from cynical exploitation. One West Yorkshire firm was found guilty by a court of using untrained, unprotected schoolchildren to load disintegrating asbestos into skips for disposal, in full knowledge of the risks.

One of the few positive aspects of the Armley asbestos tragedy has been the establishment of a trust fund to pay for research into mesothelioma and to find a cure. It was set up in the name of June Hancock following her death. It has raised more than 250,000. Donations can be sent to: Adrian Budgen, The June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund, c/o Irwin Mitchell Solicitors, St Peters House, Hartshead, Sheffield S1 2EL.

'It's a pittance... June would have been appalled'

THE 24p in the pound settlement to be paid to asbestos victims is expected to be ratified by the UK courts by November 14.

Solicitor Adrian Budgen, who represented the late campaigner and asbestos victim June Hancock, says that typically an asbestos victim could expect compensation of 100,000. Of this 10,000 would have to be paid back for any industrial injury benefits received. The victim will then receive 24 per cent of the remaining 90,000 – less than 23,000.

"It is a pittance," he said. "If we had known in 2001 it was going to take four years I am sure there would have been a much bigger outcry. We just ran into the mire. It was beyond our control.

"Very much of what was happening was being dictated across the water in the United States. I think June would have been appalled by all this."

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