What first appeared to be a freak of nature has become a nightmare of uncertainty for the residents of Birkenhead. The fallout is likely to land in court. Jason Bennetto reports
At first, Rosaleen Graham thought it had been snowing. Her garden, window sills and car were covered in a fine white and brown powder. When she looked more closely, she found larger chunks of grey matter, which crumbled in her hand. Her neighbour's sons gathered up the flakes that littered their back garden and threw them in the bin.

Small boys carried on playing football, scampering and diving on the grass as the imaginary crowd roared them on. Neighbours cleaned their cars, swept the paths and tidied up.

It was when the men from the council arrived in white overalls and masks that people started to get worried. Their concern grew, Mrs Graham says, when the TV and radio revealed that a cloud of asbestos and ash had fallen on Birkenhead, across the Mersey from Liverpool. Rosaleen's "snow" had not been a bizarre meteorological event, but the fallout from a nearby factory fire.

The burning building was the British Leather tanning factory on the New Chester Road, which was closed last year. The blaze, believed to be the work of vandals, started in the early hours of 22 September last yearand raged out of control for several hours, sending flames high into the night air. Among the ash and soot were sections and fragments of the corrugated asbestos roof, blown by the wind off the Mersey.

More than a thousand residents from Birkenhead and surrounding areas who were affected by fallout from the fire are trying to claim compensation from the British Leather Company Ltd and Wirral Borough Council, who they claim were negligent in allowing the dispersal of the asbestos and then in allegedly failing to take action quickly enough - residents say it took 14 hours for warnings to be issued. Both parties reject the claims for damages.

Legal aid was granted earlier this month for a detailed investigation into the incident, after medical examinations of about 60 claimants found that some were suffering from respiratory problems and might develop cancer. In the next month about 15 people are expected to have scans to discover whether asbestos fibres have lodged in their bodies. The solicitors involved say this is the first time legal aid has been granted to examine all aspects of asbestos contamination.

Rosaleen Graham believes her experience was typical. "When I went outside there were bits everywhere. Some were pieces of corrugated roof - they were up to half a foot long. When you picked them up, they fell apart. The ash and dust was white, grey and brown."

She telephoned the council's environmental health office in the morning and asked for someone to come and clean up the debris. "I told him it was disgusting. Someone from the environmental health office came. Later men in white suits arrived and started damping down the roads - they were there until 9.30 at night."

Mrs Graham claims that neither she nor any neighbours heard warnings from the police who toured the area in the afternoon with loudhailers, telling people not to touch the debris. She says that the council has not cleaned the gutters or any of the houses in the area.

"The council should have taken action much earlier," she says. "They must have known it was dangerous, but they didn't bother telling us until it was too late. Even now, they've done nothing - there's been no clean- up or proper advice."

Since the fire, Christine Ledgerton, 40, has had to use an inhaler to help her with breathing. "I have to use it three or four times a day - I've never had asthma before, but now I get breathless walking up a hill. I don't believe the timing of this is a coincidence."

Of the tannery itself, just sections of the outer red brick wall remain. Inside, the fire and bulldozers have done their work. The concrete floor, the size of several football pitches, is all that remains. A solitary digger crushes, rips and shovels the last of the factory's guts into huge skips dotted throughout the building. A few piles of charred wood, iron beams and twisted girders are left.

Running alongside one wall is the A41 dual carriageway. Next to that is a garage and a railway line. Beyond are homes, back gardens, playgrounds, animals and people.

Norman Williams's chart, which he uses to record his breathing capacity, has leapt up and down in the past six months. Mr Williams, 55, who suffers from emphysema, has had his lungs collapse twice since the fire and needed an operation in November. There is no way of telling whether this is linked to the asbestos. "All I can say is that there was ash everywhere. It was like big blisters of flaked silver paint. My lads collected it up with their hands in the back garden and put it in the bin. I must have breathed a lot of the stuff in."

Consultants have given medical checks to other residents. The report, used in the successful application for legal aid, stated that a five- year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl were at risk of developing asbestosis and other diseases caused by asbestos. It also stated that a 58-year-old woman "appears to have been left with persistent inflammation of the chest and ... a chronic cough." She, too, was at risk of developing asbestosis in later years.

Dr Andrew Welch, an ear, nose and throat specialist who carried out some of the tests, said: "The main concern is with the long-term effects. In years to come it could cause asbestosis and tumours, but it is impossible to tell at this stage."

He added: "I have seen a number of cases involving damage to the upper respiratory tract. Some are likely to be permanent, as they are still having problems six months after the fire."

Solicitors have started to hire experts to research the scientific, legal and medical implications of the incident. Graham Ross, of the Ross Park Partnership in Liverpool, who is acting on behalf of Abenson & Co in Liverpool, has applied for access to all the council's files. "We want to recreate the events of that day, to establish exactly was done and said." He is getting a scientific analysis to discover how much exposure to asbestos is needed before permanent damage occurs.

The solicitors believe that the council failed to warn residents about the asbestos in time and provided contradictory information. They claim that the factory owners were negligent in not removing the asbestos from a building that was at risk from arson attacks.

"The risk to public health was ignored during vital hours following the fire, as a result of which many people, particularly children, engaged in dangerous practices," Mr Ross said. "For certain, the Birkenhead public were let down."

A statement by Wirral Borough Council said: "Following the fire, the council believes that the actions that it took in response to the incident were correct and proper. It believes that any potential claims arising out of the fire should be the sole responsibility of British Leather." A spokesman for British Leather Company Ltd, which is based in Liverpool, refused to comment.

Cases involving asbestos can be very difficult because the diseases usually take years to develop and it is extremely hard to prove who is responsible and whether they were negligent. A study in 1988 discovered what appeared to be a cluster of cases of a cancer called mesothelioma centred on a former asbestos factory in the Leeds district of Armley. Mesothelioma is a rare disease that is usually caused by exposure to blue asbestos. It can take up to 50 years to develop and affects the lining of the lungs and abdomen.

The Leeds study concluded: "There is evidence that 33 people who worked at the factory and 13 people with close relatives who worked at the factory died in Leeds from mesothelioma between 1971 and 1987." Dozens of people are attempting to sue the factory's parent company, which denies responsibility. No link has been proved between the asbestos used in the factory and the deaths from the mesothelioma.

Meanwhile, in Birkenhead, life has returned to normality. One resident, who lives close to the tannery, said: "It is strange having all the old industries closing down around here. The smell from the tannery used to be vile - it used to waft over first thing in the morning.

"The stench of the animal hides being prepared was terrible. But the uncertainty of what the asbestos might have done to us is far worse than any smell."

The dangerous dust that takes decades to settle

uAsbestos is the collective name for a group of fibrous minerals that are mechanically strong and are resistant to heat and a wide range of chemicals. Commercial exploitation began in earnest in the 1890s; imports of asbestos to the UK peaked in 1973 at 190,000 tons.

uThere are three types: chrysotile (commonly called "white") asbestos; amosite ("brown"); and crocidolite ("blue"). Of these, white is the only asbestos that can legally be used in the EU (eg, for brake pads, asbestos cement). Brown and blue asbestos are the two most dangerous forms. Blue asbestos has not been imported to the UK since 1972 and brown asbestos was phased out in 1980-82.

uAsbestos causes respiratory problems: small fibrous particles settle in the lungs, and may lead to disease 15, 30 or even 50 years later, either asbestosis or mesothelioma.

uAsbestosis causes scarring and shrinkage of the lungs, and is thought to increase the risk of lung cancer by five times.

uMesothelioma is a cancer of the inner lining of the chest wall, and is associated primarily with exposure to asbestos (in the US it is called "asbestos cancer"). There is no cure and patients usually die within a year of diagnosis.

uSuspicions of a link between asbestos and lung disease were aired in the 1920s; the term "asbestosis" appeared in the British Medical Journal in 1927. The first full study of the effects of asbestos began the following year and the first legislation regulating its use was introduced in the UK in 1931.

uFigures compiled earlier this year put asbestos-related deaths at an estimated 3,000 a year in the UK. One in 40 men in their fifties who have been exposed to asbestos are expected to die of mesothelioma. Projected deaths from mesothelioma are expected to continue to rise until at least 2010, possibly 2025, and will peak at 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year in the UK.

Source: Health & Safety Executive.