'I don't want my husband's death to be for nothing': Tom Wilkie reports on a lack of official responsibility or award for compensation in the case of Britain's most irradiated man

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING TO William Neilson's widow Jessie: 'It was a horrific death.' The marrow inside the long bones of her husband's legs hardened and expanded from the inside, causing intense deep-seated pain. Eventually it crippled him.

Unable to walk, he could not even sit comfortably and was confined to his bed. He suffered persistent and copious bleeding from the nose and tongue. He was the most heavily irradiated man in post-war British history.

Characteristically, Mrs Neilson understated the burden her husband's illness imposed upon her, saying only that she had taken care to wash him and settle him each morning before she had gone out to work and before the district nurse called to check on him. But her anger mounted as she recalled how her husband's employers, Metal and Pipeline Extension Ltd (Mapel) had treated them.

The first sign of the injury that was to kill William Neilson appeared in 1984. It seemed innocuous enough. 'He had a sore finger,' Jessie recalled. It healed by itself and it was not until 1988 that he saw a dermatologist. By this time, the blood vessels on his fingers had begun to rupture and crusted ulcers had formed, one of them destroying the bed of the fingernail. The nails of the other fingers were also abnormal by this time.

Since Mr Neilson's work involved the use of hand-held radiation sources, the consultant diagnosed radiation dermatitis. But according to Mrs Neilson, her husband's employers did not reassign him to non-radioactive work nor did they order an immediate blood test to determine the extent of his radiation dose. He had been working on industrial radiography, using powerful sources of high-energy gamma rays - known as iridium- 192 - to check the integrity of welds in pipe work and pressure vessels at BP Grangemouth complex in east Scotland. After his injury first became known to his employers, Mrs Neilson said: 'He was taken off Grangemouth and sent to Faslane (the nuclear submarine base on the Clyde estuary).'

Mrs Neilson continued: 'The finger got so bad it was like gangrene. I said to him 'there's a funny smell here', and it was his finger.' Early in 1990, Mr Neilson's index finger and the tip of his third finger were amputated. Only then did inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive begin to investigate - they have been unable to discover how Mr Neilson came to be the most heavily irradiated man in post-war British history.

No excess of radiation was ever recorded on the film badges that Mr Neilson used to pin to his trousers before he left for work. There have been no prosecutions under the Health and Safety at Work Act; nor has Mrs Neilson received any compensation.

In their home in East Kilbride there are reminders of his former vigour and activity. Over the 23 years of their life there, Mr Neilson had extensively remodelled the house, putting in wood panelling and building an extension.

But, according to Mrs Neilson, towards the end 'Bill's breathing was bad, he couldn't walk, he couldn't eat, he couldn't sit up in bed. No one knew how bad he was. What made it worse is he knew he was dying.' They should have celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary the year Mr Neilson died.

He bled copiously: 'The blood just erupted from his tongue and nose because the platelets had gone. The doctors took platelets from Stuart (their son) for transfusion to Bill.' But that had little effect. Eventually, in constant pain despite large doses of morphine, he wasted away. 'He went down to four stone. You would have thought he was all legs. We had to put pairs and pairs of socks and jumpers on him to keep the heat in him.'

Her husband was paid just pounds 600 a month for a job which involved close contact with high-radioactivity sources, out-of-doors work throughout the year, and crawling into confined spaces, holding the radiation sources, to check the integrity of welded joints. When he retired through ill-health, he got a pension of pounds 130 a month and a lump-sum payment of pounds 4,000. But even after the amputation of Mr Neilson's fingers, he was denied any benefit from an industrial insurance scheme intended to cover total or partial loss of limb.

The couple started legal proceedings for compensation but ran out of money to pursue their claim, and the action died with Mr Neilson.

Mrs Neilson said: 'Mapel have ignored us completely. When Bill got really ill, nobody contacted us. They didn't even phone and ask how he was.' The only people from Mapel to attend Mr Neilson's funeral were a secretary and one of Mr Neilson's former colleagues, who had retired some time before. It was, she said, 'as if this had never happened. I'm angry because Bill worked so hard for them'.

Her self-control broke only when she remembered events after her husband's death, which nearly led to her eviction from the family home. Debt had mounted up, preventing the mortgage from being paid off. Desperate for help, she contacted Mapel: 'They told me to go to the Citizen's Advice Bureau.'

Eventually she remortgaged the house: 'I should retire this year, but I can't,' she said. 'I'm paying a mortgage I never thought I would have to pay. I've had no help from anybody.' But Mrs Neilson's concerns are not merely personal. 'He died a horrific death. I don't want my husband to have died of radiation and it to be for nothing.'

(Photograph omitted)

Leading article, page 15

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