Jeremy Laurance: The tragic timebomb that took Malcolm McLaren's life

Medical Life

Malcolm McLaren's death affected me more than I expected. I was never a fan of the Sex Pistols, nor a punk rocker, and I only wore safety pins when I lost the buttons on my shirt.

But the image I can't get out of my mind is of the young McLaren, aged twenty-something, full of flair and ambition, smashing through the ceiling of the Sex boutique in the Kings Road he was setting up with Vivienne Westwood. He wanted to create the impression a bomb had hit it. Instead, he released a bomb that hit him.

Life is fragile, we know. You can step off the pavement and be wiped out in a second. A single mistake is all it takes. But this was a case of stepping off a cliff a million miles high – and taking 40 years to hit bottom.

From the moment he swung the sledgehammer, McLaren was doomed. His partner, Young Kim, said it was exposure to asbestos dust in the ceiling of the shop that caused the mesothelioma, cancer of the lining of the lung, that ultimately killed him. More than nine out of 10 cases of mesothelioma are caused by asbestos, so Kim is probably right. It is not like smoking, which takes years of cumulative exposure to do the damage. Even a few lungfuls of asbestos can be fatal. Kim said the shop was "the only place Malcolm ever really spent any serious length of time".

The danger posed by asbestos was not recognised until the late 1970s. Once it became clear how nasty it was it was ripped out of buildings everywhere (probably causing more harm, by releasing lethal fibres into the air, than leaving it in place). The public were advised to throw away old ironing boards – the asbestos stand for the iron at the end could become frayed, releasing fibres – and there were warnings about brands of cat litter made from a clay with similar properties to asbestos.

But all that was too late for McLaren. For him, the die was already cast.

If mesothelioma had killed instantly it would have been headline news. But because it killed slowly, the horror has been missed. In 2008, it caused 2,154 deaths, more than twice as many as, for example, cervical cancer, the disease that killed reality TV star Jade Goody a year ago (there were 957 deaths from cervical cancer in 2008).

The other difference is that the victims of mesothelioma are mostly old, working-class men who spent their lives exposed to the dust in factories and workshops. McLaren, at 64, was a relative youngster.

Deaths from mesothelioma have been rising for decades and are only now peaking – a legacy of our dependence on asbestos 30 years ago. The last press conference I attended on the subject was in 2003. It was, as I reported at the time, a sad affair. There were more experts on the panel – five – than journalists in the audience (three, including me).

If, instead of striking older men, it had struck young women, then that press conference would have been packed – and there would have been many more since.