Asbestos deaths to soar despite ban

The toll from what was once called the `magic mineral' will rise until 2020, making it a bigger killer than road accidents, writes Geoffrey Lean
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The Independent Online
A HIDDEN KILLER continues to stalk the land. The death toll from asbestos will soon overtake the thousands killed in traffic accidents every year, the Government has admitted.

Some 3,000 people a year now die as a result of inhaling the killer dust, a largely unpublicised total which already rivals the 3,400 killed on the roads. But while the number of road deaths is falling, the annual tally of asbestos victims is expected to go on rising until at least 2020, even though the deadly powder has recently been banned in Britain.

Using or selling the mineral in the UK, or bringing it into the country, is outlawed under the new law, which the environment minister Michael Meacher calls "a landmark". Both he and John Prescott , the deputy prime minister, made achieving the ban a priority when they gained office. They campaigned successfully for a Europe-wide prohibition on the mineral, which will take effect in 2005, and have brought in a British one more than five years earlier.

But the change in the law is too late for tens of thousands of people who have already breathed in levels of the dust that will give them fatal asbestosis or cancer in the years ahead. In most cases the diseases take hold decades after exposure to the mineral.

Most people in Britain, as do those in other industrialised countries, have some asbestos in their lungs. By one US government estimate, it may eventually kill 5.4 million Americans.

Resistant to fire, impervious to heat, and virtually indestructible, but so fine and pliable that it can be spun and woven like cloth, asbestos became known as "the magic mineral". But its fineness also made it easy to breathe in, and its indestructibility ensures that it stays in the lungs, to do its damage.

Ancient Finnish potters used asbestos to strengthen their clay some 4,500 years ago but it did not really come into its own until the late 19th century, when it became widely used to lag steam engines. And though the ancient Romans had noted that slaves who worked with it got "a sickness of the lungs", it was not until the last century that it really embarked on its career as a mass murderer.

Exactly 100 years ago, in 1899, a doctor at Charing Cross Hospital in London - Montague Murray - discovered that 10 people who worked together spinning the new miracle substance had all died in their 30s from the heavy scarring of the lungs that came to be known as asbestosis. Yet the first comprehensive study of British asbestos workers was not carried out until 1928. That investigation found that 80 per cent of those who had been in the industry for more than 20 years had asbestosis.

The then Chief Inspector of Factories promised that the industry would be "safe" within a decade, but the long history of complacency and neglect continued.

Although the first regulations to control exposures to the dust in the asbestos industry were introduced in 1931, they were never implemented. There were only two prosecutions over the 38 years that those rules were in force.

A new standard came in 1969, and was widely copied around the world. But just a few years later one of the industry doctors on whose work the standard had been based told me that it was "not adequate for the purpose". Meanwhile thousands of construction workers, plumbers and electricians had no protection at all.

The medical establishment was slow to accept new evidence that the mineral caused cancer as well as asbestosis, demanding proof while failing to carry out scientific research. Meanwhile production of the mineral soared to more than 4 million tons a year and it became used in more than 3,000 ways, from insulation to ironing boards, from brakes in cars to filters for drinks.

The tide began to turn a quarter of a century ago and, more by luck than judgement, I played a small part. In 1974, as a young journalist on the Yorkshire Post , I wrote an expose of an asbestos factory in Hebden Bridge, where more than 250 people died, but which was never prosecuted.

By good fortune the newly elected MP for the town, Max Madden, read it, and started a campaign. A devastating Ombudsman inquiry followed, and, as a result, regulations were tightened and asbestos use began to fall sharply. But the greatest credit for the ban goes to the 30-year battle of one elderly woman (see above).

The story of asbestos and the official response it met has been repeated many times over, on lead in petrol, pesticides, BSE - and maybe GM food - to name a few. There were the same denials and the same blaming of the press for making trouble: "The position has been clearly overdramatised," it was said of asbestos in 1977. "Fears have largely stemmed from sensational news features." Some things, it seems, do not change.