Solicitors acting for the claimants said 67 women from the 1,200-strong workforce producing gas masks with asbestos filters between 1937 and 1945 had died from the rare cancer mesothelioma, which is only caused by exposure to asbestos. Some were found to have a billion fibres of asbestos in every gram of lung tissue, Richard Meeran, of London solicitors Leigh, Day & Co, said.
Mesothelioma is untreatable and results in a painful death as a cancerous tumour envelopes the lungs and crushes them until they collapse.
Boots denies any liability, saying it was one of several companies required by the wartime government to assemble masks which were made to its specifications. Risks associated with mesothelioma had not then been identified and the safety precautions adopted by Boots were considered to set the industry standard, the company argued.
The plaintiffs claim that the company was negligent because the link between asbestos and asbestosis was known as early as the 1931 Asbestos Regulations. The company, they claim, did nothing to limit the exposure of workers to the fibres.
Boots has long been aware that many workers were falling ill. In 1965, it invited survivors who were at greatest risk to submit themselves for a health study by scientists. The results revealed that the death rate from mesothelioma was 150 times higher than in a control group.
The six claims lodged yesterday will go with two others to the High Court next week, where a timetable is due to be set for a forthcoming trial.
One of the claimants, Elaine Brooks, 44, watched her mother, Constance Thompson, die. She said: "She went from 14 stone to 6 stone and became so delirious that she did not know who anyone was. She had scars all down her back from the operations on her lungs and her hair all fell out. She just could not breathe or do anything."
Mrs Thompson, who worked on the gas-mask production lines for three years in her early twenties, died from mesothelioma in 1967, aged 50. Mesothelioma often takes 15-50 years to develop but is usually fatal within two years.
In a statement issued yesterday Boots said: "The Boots Company has great sympathy for those affected by asbestos ... but we maintain that all reasonable precautions were taken to protect the workforce given both the level of knowledge available at the time and the wartime national emergency."Reuse content