Asbestos: How a widow made `experts' see danger

CREDIT for the asbestos ban belongs not to the doctors, who were mostly slow to accept the damage the mineral could do, nor to the trades unions who often seemed strangely indifferent, writes Geoffrey Lean. Above anyone else, the credit belongs to a latter-day Miss Marple.

Nancy Tait, a 79-year-old grandmother, combines the fictional detective's benign appearance with incisive shrewdness, gentleness of manner with rugged determination.

For years the industry ridiculed and tried to ignore her - and because of her sex, her age, and her lack of scientific credentials she had a long battle to be taken seriously, even by some of those broadly sympathetic to her cause. But she has been repeatedly proved right.

Her battle began in 1968 when her husband, a top telecommunications engineer with the Post Office - with responsibility for the "hotline" between London and Moscow - died of mesothelioma, a rare cancer for which exposure to asbestos is the only known cause, at the age of 61. The killer dust was found in his lungs, even though he had never worked with it. All he had done was to visit installations where asbestos was used as lagging.

Mrs Tait's tragedy convinced her - long before the medical profession began to accept it - that ordinary people as well as asbestos workers could be at risk, that low exposures could be dangerous as well as high ones. While others discussed tightening regulations, she uncompromisingly campaigned for a ban. She taught herself the science, gradually winning medical and political support.

"I was often at the point where I felt I had had enough - but then the industry or officialdom would always do something that would make me so angry that I had to continue," she says. "I just felt that things were not right, and that I should say so. I am only now beginning to realise that people took some notice of me."

Victory will bring her - and the small organisation she founded, the Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association - no respite. For years she has been devoting much of her time to helping thousands of people with asbestosis-related diseases though the tortuous, bruising business of getting compensation from firms and pensions from the government . The ban, she says, will just allow her more time for that work.