IoS Investigation

Asbestos: A shameful legacy

The authorities knew it was deadly more than 100 years ago, but it was only banned entirely in 1999. The annual death rate will peak at more than 5,000 in 2016 – now MPs have a chance to do the decent thing.

They called it "the Barking cough". First it began like any other: a tickle in the chest and slight pain on breathing. Then, within a matter of months, the sufferer was in agony, gasping for air and eventually suffocating to death as a vicious cancer attacked their lungs waiting for the final lingering, inevitable end which might not come for decades.

The legacy of the Cape Asbestos factory in Barking, east London, where asbestos-related cancers continue to kill scores of residents, is a deadly one. Hundreds of people have died since the factory closed in 1968.

The story of Barking's "industrial killing machine" is a story repeated up and down the country where thousands of Britons continue to be blighted by their industrial past. Exposure to asbestos is now the biggest killer in the British workforce, killing about 4,000 people every year – more than who die in traffic accidents. The shocking figures are the grim legacy of the millions of tons of the dust shipped to Britain to make homes, schools, factories and offices fire resistant. It was used in products from household fabrics to hairdryers.

Those most at risk are ordinary workers and their families. Whether it was dockyard workers who unloaded the lethal cargoes, or those in the factories exposed to the fibres, or the carpenters, laggers, plumbers, electricians and shipyard workers who routinely used asbestos for insulation – all suffered. So did the wives who washed the work overalls and the children who hugged their parents or played in the dust-coated streets.

The exposure to asbestos in Britain is largely historical but the death toll is alarmingly etched on our future. Asbestos fibres can lie dormant on victims' lungs for up to half a century; deaths from asbestos in Britain will continue to rise until 2016.

Nor is it confined to Britain. The World Health Organisation says asbestos currently kills at least 90,000 workers every year. One report estimated the asbestos cancer epidemic could claim anywhere between five and 10 million lives before it is banned worldwide and exposure ceases.

Asbestos was hailed as the "magic mineral" when its tough, flexible but fire-resistant qualities were realised, but for more than a century doctors and others have been warning of its dangers. Asbestos dust was being inhaled into the lungs where it could lie unnoticed before causing crippling illnesses such lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma which one medical professor has described as "perhaps the most terrible cancer known, in which the decline is the most cruel".

For people such as those in Barking who have seen their neighbours, relatives and friends suffer this excruciatingly painful and distressing death, there can be little consolation when they discover the first signs of asbestos exposure on their own lungs. These scars, known as pleural plaques, can be a warning that they too may develop one of the fatal cancers that inhaling the lethal fibres can result in.

On Wednesday, a meeting between MPs and government lawyers will determine if people suffering from pleural plaques can be paid the compensation that many believe they deserve. For 21 years, sufferers of pleural plaques were compensated by their employers for the scars caused by exposure to the deadly fibres, but in 2007 this was overturned by a Law Lords ruling. Politicians and medical experts accuse the Government of pandering to the insurance lobby and claim they are now ignoring crucial new medical evidence which reveals the physical and mental toll of pleural plaques.

In Dagenham Working Men's club, up the road from the site of the Cape asbestos factory, members of the local GMB laggers' branch gather for a beer to discuss the one deadly issue that continues to plague their members: asbestos. Jimmy Parrish, branch chairman, has a list of 67 of their 300 or so members affected by asbestos-related disease since 1998. Many of them were diagnosed with pleural plaques and 30 are now dead. "Hitler killed only one of my uncles," said Parrish. "Cape killed the rest."

Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, said the lack of compensation for pleural plaques sufferers was scandalous. "If that amount of death occurred in any other profession it would be a national scandal," he said. "It's a working-class disease and it doesn't get the attention it should do: it's a life sentence. You've got to think about the corporate interests of insurance companies and compare that with a lagger. There's no equivalent in the power game here. The insurance industry says there's no link between pleural plaques and fatal forms of asbestos disease, but figures from the GMB suggest otherwise.

"It's extraordinary what's going on in our area. It's an epidemic. There's barely a family that doesn't have some experience of asbestos-related disease and it's going to get worse; it's not even at its peak yet."

The Barking and Dagenham Asbestos Support Group describes the Cape factory at Barking as an "industrial killing machine". Between 1981 and 2005, the number of men dying from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma in Barking reached 187, making it the worst area of London for asbestos-related disease and in the top 10 for the UK. It was not just workmen who suffered. Barking has the highest rate of mesothelioma for women in the country, with 60 women dying from the disease between 1981 and 2005. But these official figures are just the start. Since asbestos can lie dormant for up to 50 years, many people have long since left the area. Geoffrey Tweedale, an asbestos industry expert, said: "No one knows the death toll, but it's possibly in the thousands. Cape never had to release their records."

Although there were other sources of exposure in the area, Cape's processing of the fibres was on a different scale. The factory employed more than 10,000 people from the time it opened in 1913 to its closure in 1968.

Cape insisted asbestos was harmless even after the factory in Barking closed. Richard Gaze, former chief scientist for Cape Asbestos, defended its record throughout the 1970s until he died of mesothelioma himself, aged 65, in 1982.

Workers were told that drinking half a pint of milk would prevent illness and were left to toil in the thick dust with no masks. Dust from the building spewed on to the streets from giant fans, leaving cotton wool-like wisps to settle on the streets. The streets "looked like Christmas", residents recall. Children in Northbury School, which was adjacent to the factory, used to gather up this "snow" and throw it at each other.

Peter Williams of Field Fisher Waterhouse, solicitors specialising in asbestos disease, said, "I think Cape would have known that asbestos was highly dangerous. From the people we've spoken to that worked in the factory and lived in the surrounding area, no precautions were taken and no one from Cape ever mentioned it was dangerous."

Today, the Hart's Lane estate lies where the factory used to be. The only visible sign of its industrial past is a road name – Cape Close – but the legacy has lasted far longer than anyone might have guessed. Successive tests between 1997 and 2003 found asbestos dangerously near the surface in the soil of the estate.

Rita Ashdown, who died from mesothelioma in 2002, was among the first to perish. She insisted her exposure was from the 13 years she lived on the estate. The council's insurers paid her £40,000 compensation but denied responsibility. Now Dennis Gaffney is dying from the same disease and believes he too was exposed after spending time on the estate in the 1970s.

A spokesman for Barking and Dagenham council said it had commissioned "extensive independent experts' studies" of the Hart's Lane estate, most recently in 2006. "The studies concluded that any risk to the health of the estate's residents or visitors from asbestos is insignificant," he said.

On Wednesday MPs and others will meet government lawyers to press for the controversial 2007 Lords decision on plaques to be challenged. Andrew Dismore MP, who is attempting for a second time to get a bill through the House of Lords which would challenge the decision, said: "It's a manifest injustice. The law treats psychological injury differently from physical injury. The insurers are obviously trying to minimise their loss and the Government also has a potential liability for some of these cases. Come what may this issue has to be resolved."

Those with pleural plaques are 1,000 times more likely to suffer from an asbestos-related cancer than the rest of the population, but a government-commissioned report which has been used to justify the continued lack of compensation for sufferers said that the risk of pleural plaques sufferers contracting lung cancer was "very small". Dr Robin Rudd, the country's leading expert on asbestos-related disease, said the report had disregarded the latest evidence. "It's not a medical question," said Dr Rudd. "Jack Straw is just using medical evidence as a smoke screen. The report missed the last 10 years of medical evidence."

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said the House of Lords decision had raised "extremely complex and difficult issues which have required very careful consideration within Government". She added that the issues were still being actively considered "in order to be in a position to publish a final response as soon as possible".

Cape claimed it was unaware of the dangers, but as early as 1898, the chief inspector of factories in the UK reported that asbestos had "easily demonstrated" health risks. In Barking itself, alarm bells sounded in 1929 when the medical officer of health wrote in his annual report: "Many people in Barking are suffering from diseases of the lungs due to the inhalation of asbestos dust." By 1945, the medical officer wrote that asbestos was a "deadly and dangerous commodity" that should probably be banned.

A company spokesman said, "Cape has taken a very responsible approach to dealing with this issue, establishing an independent fund over two and a half years ago for the benefit of all claimants. The scheme covers all types of disease, paying compensation to claimants where due."

It was the ill-health of those living near the Barking factory that precipitated a nationwide shift in attitudes to using asbestos. A 1965 report showed that there had been a spate of mesothelioma cases among residents living near the Cape factory. The factory closed three years later, but its legacy will continue to be marked by graves.

Asbestos: Case studies...

The man exposed from visits to the estate (after the factory was gone)

Dennis Gaffney, 84, is dying from mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos on the Hart's Lane estate which was built on the site of the old Cape factory. In the early 1970s, Dennis used to drive his wife Lily to see her mother, Lizzie Potter, four times a week after work. Mrs Potter had just moved into a brand new house built on the estate where the factory had been. Building work was still going on at the time and Dennis used to wait outside in his car with the windows down while his wife chatted to her mother. "I had a new car and I didn't want to get involved in women's talk, so I thought I'd leave them to it," explains Mr Gaffney. Sometimes when he got bored he would walk around and watch what was going on with the builders. It is now known that asbestos was not properly removed from the ground after the factory was shut down, but as Mr Gaffney wandered around the building site he had no idea of this. "There must have been dust in the air because there was no other time I could have been exposed to asbestos," said Mr Gaffney, who used to work in marketing. "I've had a biopsy and I'm still uncomfortable on my chest, but they just tell me to keep taking paracetamol."

The school boy whose 'snowball' fights in the yard killed him

George Dickerson used to have "snowball" fights with the thick white dust that gathered in the sports fields of Northbury Infant School he had no idea that his game would prove deadly. George, who spent his working life helping adults with learning difficulties, died from mesothelioma in 2006 aged 76 because his schoolyard was always showered in asbestos dust from the adjacent factory. His daughter Jane said: "He used to tell us about huge extractor fans that churned chunks of asbestos dust on to the lane that led to the school sports field. They used to collect it and bash it all together for snowball fights. As soon as he was diagnosed he knew it was from playing in it as a child. He was angry that nothing was done to protect local residents."

The wife killed by her husband's overalls (and the family destroyed by dust)

Jacqueline Merritt spent years washing her husband Don's overalls and shaking the dust off them. Don had worked for Cape and his clothes were covered in asbestos. In 2004, she died from mesothelioma, aged 60, and now her husband Don has pleural plaques on his lungs and worries he'll go the same way. Not only did he lose his wife to the deadly fibres, but his brother Fred and his brother-in-law Len Sturrock also died from asbestosis. "Me and Jacky had three boys together and they all missed their mum when she died and still do. My brother Fred worked with it for just eight weeks and he died 15 years ago. Asbestos has had a massive effect on our family."

The child killed by the hug he gave a family friend

Gordon Sanders, when he was still a schoolboy, used to get visits most days from his parents' best friend, Jimmy Dows, on his way home from work at the Cape factory. He loved kids, and when he came round, still in his dusty overalls, Gordon and his younger brother Philip would hug him and jump all over him. After Jimmy left, Gordon's mother would shake out the mat and leave newspaper to collect the dust. In 2005, Gordon, who was by then a primary school headteacher, died from mesothelioma, aged 57. Philip also died from lung cancer in 1988, when he was 35. At Gordon's inquest, the Coroner said that Philip's death was most likely also related to exposure to the fibres. Gordon's wife Ethel said: "The kids would crawl all over Jimmy because he was such a nice bloke. Nobody had any idea how bad the dust was. It's such a nasty disease. It's a feeling of gradually being suffocated. Gordon felt robbed of his future life with us. It seems so unjust that there was such a lack of regard for the health of people living in the area."

The mother killed by a deadly housing estate

Rita Ashdown had no idea when she moved into her new home in 1972 that it would kill her. The flat was on the Hart's Lane estate, built on the site of the old Cape factory. In 2002 she died from mesothelioma, aged 62. Her son, Eddie, said: "In 2001, tests showed that there was asbestos just a foot under ground. It wasn't until she was diagnosed that we started to think how she could have got it. We lived there for 13 years."

The lagger who mixed Cape's asbestos with his bare hands

Graham Taylor is living on borrowed time. When the 61-year-old was 15, he worked for Cape for a year, mixing drums of asbestos with his bare hands and without a mask. Four years ago he was frighteningly short of breath and saw a doctor. He was quickly diagnosed with asbestosis, and told he had between two and five years left. "When we'd finish work we'd look like we had jumped in bags of flour. My lungs are turning to concrete. I've been handed a death sentence and Cape wanted to quibble about money."

The family wiped out by asbestos

June Gibson's mother, Amy West, and her aunt, Maud Raisbeck, died of asbestosis aged 43 and 28 in the 1920s and 30s after working in the Cape factory. "The only compensation my mum got from Cape was an Italian marble gravestone," June, 79, said. "She weighed four stone before she died." Now June, who never worked there herself, has shadows on her lung too.

The former pro-footballer who can hardly walk

Peter Bragger, 60, was a semi-professional footballer and former captain of the England under-18 team. Now walking to the phone leaves him struggling for air. He worked for Cape from 1964 as a lagger. "I was first diagnosed with pleural plaques, but now I've got asbestosis. I've had a lower lobectomy which removed part of my lung. My life has been cut short."

The asbestos researcher

Marjorie Wells's job during the Second World War was to work in the lab at the Barking factory checking which lengths of asbestos fibres gave the best finish. Now 85, she is dying of mesothelioma. "There was dust everywhere, but it didn't worry me at all. We just carried on with our normal lives afterwards," said Marjorie. "It was a shock when I found out that's what was making me ill. Now I've got no energy at all."

The female factory worker

Marian Lethbridge had trained as a children's nurse, initially making only 15 shillings (75p) a week. When she saw an advert for women to work in the Cape factory for £4, she couldn't get there quickly enough. She worked there for only nine months, when she was 16, but that was enough: she was spinning the asbestos fibres, and they gave her no protection. Her husband, Ted Lethbridge, said: "At the end of the day they would get her to clean all the dust and she can remember it being so thick it hung off the light fittings. You've got to wonder why they were offering so much more money. She died of mesothelioma in 1997, when she was 69, and she was in so much pain. She said to me, 'Just let me die; I don't want any more.'"

Deadly history: The 'magic mineral' turns devasting killer

* Asbestos is dubbed the "magic mineral" after it is discovered that the rock minerals' fibrous qualities provide heat-resistant material. It is used in factories and homes. The same qualities made it deadly to workers exposed to the fibres.

* In 1898, UK factory inspectors first identified the "evil effects" of asbestos and its danger to workers' health. By 1955 a study reveals the clear lung-cancer risk. It was not totally banned in the UK until 1999, 101 years after the alarm was first raised.

* This week MPs will meet government lawyers about compensation for victims of the asbestos-related lung scarring, pleural plaques, which has not been available since the Law Lords controversially ruled against it in 2007.

* As well as pleural plaques, exposure to asbestos fibre can result in three potentially fatal diseases: asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma (a deadly cancer that strangles the lungs and other internal organs) and asbestosis (a disease that attacks the lung tissues).

* The World Health Organisation estimates asbestos is currently killing 90,000 people a year worldwide. One authoritative study predicts up to 10 million people will die because of it. We won't know the true extent in the UK until 2016 when the death toll is expected to peak.

Have your say

Do you believe that a generation of Britons has been betrayed? Let us know below or email:

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Flat out: Michael Flatley will return to the stage in his show Lord Of The Dance
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Insight Manager - Marketing

£32000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based o...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux, Redhat, Solaris, SAN, Puppet

£55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL, MSMQ, SQL, GIT, SQ...

Data Centre Engineer - Linux / Redhat / Solaris / Puppet / SAN

£65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A financial software vendor at the forefro...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape