'Asbestos killed my husband, so I don't mind that I'm dying, too'

The deadly dust will soon claim 10,000 victims a year from all walks of life, reports Michael Streeter
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The Independent Online
Some have likened the effects of asbestos in society to a ticking time bomb - one which will soon be killing up to 10,000 Britons a year.

For Ann Macpherson the impact is more personal. It killed her husband Derek two years ago; within perhaps a year, it will claim her life too. "My first reaction when I was told, was one of disbelief," she said yesterday. "I thought, how could this have happened to me?"

The sad example of the Macphersons illustrates a new trend: that death by asbestos is no longer just the preserve of construction workers, where it claims the majority of its victims, but is also hitting clerical and office workers. Asbestos, which currently kills 3,500 a year but is predicted to triple this toll in 20 years time by health and safety experts, is finally being recognised as a white collar killer too.

Teachers, secretaries and local government workers are among those affected, normally from a time of building work at their offices when the potentially deadly dust can be accidently released into the air.

Derek Macpherson had worked in aluminium processing for Alcan International near his home town of Banbury, Oxfordshire, since 1962. According to his wife, he used equipment made partially from asbestos in his job. No one can know exactly when he was affected - asbestos can take up to 40 years to kill. Ten years ago he first started to feel unwell, a condition initially put down to stress. It was not until 1994 that he was conclusively diagnosed as suffering from mesothelioma, a form of cancer of the lung caused by asbestos particles.

Within 15 months he was dead. Earlier this year Mrs Macpherson, 57, a secretary, started feeling unwell herself and after tests she too was found to have the same, fatal condition - in her case probably from dust unwittingly brought home by her husband. "It must have been on his face and neck, and collar and tie," she said. Now staring at death herself, Mrs Macpherson says it was her husband's demise which has been the hardest to take. "I can probably accept dying because I miss Derek so much and I do not have that much to live for. We were going to do so much together."

She wants to talk about her own circumstances to warn others of the dangers. "It can strike anywhere, it's not just people who work directly with asbestos who are at risk."

Solicitor Tom Jones, a partner at personal injury specialists Thompsons, whose firm deals with hundreds of asbestos compensation claims at any one time, has noticed the change in clientele in recent years. "Now we are getting the white collar sufferers, the second wave of people being included. It can be people working in schools, local authorities, offices and we will see it in homes as well."

Other examples include a local government manager in London who died from mesothelioma after he was exposed to asbestos when refurbishment was carried out in his office. Another was a hospital secretary who was affected during similar work at the hospital.

Dr Robin Rudd, an expert on the effects of asbestos, who works at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, said while the substance primarily affected those in the construction industry, he had noticed some clerical or professional victims. "There have been some school teachers, who got it from old lagging in schools."

There is currently no cure for mesothelioma, and with little funding or research on the subject, little prospect of one. "It is very difficult to get money to do research into the treatment of mesothelioma. We are being told we cannot do trials with new drugs because it costs too much," said Dr Rudd.

Soon after coming into office, Environment Minister Angela Eagle stated the Government's wish to ban existing imports of white asbestos - the even more dangerous blue and brown forms were banned more than 10 years ago. Ms Eagle is also looking at plans from the Health and Safety Executive on the feasibility of screening all buildings for the substance.

However, there are several obstacles to both courses of action. A compete ban may cost tens of millions of pounds to implement and could open the Government up to legal action under international free trade agreements. Representatives from Canada, which exports white asbestos, have already lobbied the British government after approaching Tony Blair at the last G7 Summit.

The problem with screening buildings is again cost - up to pounds 4bn including a large burden on local authorities. Some reports also suggest that such a massive project could take 75 years to complete.

The Government is already working to get a Europe-wide tightening of controls on the use of the substance, but as in the case of its approach to smoking, is keen to make its own domestic mark as well.

A spokesman for Alcan International said they were "very sorry" to hear of Mrs Macpherson's diagnosis. Human Resources director Alan Kimber said that in line with the rest of the industry, they had taken the necessary steps to remove certain asbestos products as their potential danger became known.