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: sundayletters@independent.co.uk

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