It took 80 years to act

Governments have ignored the dangers for most of this century, writes Geoffrey Lean
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE 33-year-old man who came to consult Dr Montague Murray at London's Charing Cross Hospital seemed at first to be just another victim of bronchitis. But then he mentioned that the other nine men who had worked with him spinning the new miracle substance, asbestos, had all died in their thirties of the same condition. When he, too, perished less than a year later, Dr Murray found the heavy scarring of the lungs that came to be called asbestosis.

The year was 1899, and more than 80 years passed before asbestos use was properly regulated - a delay that allowed the killer dust to be spread so widely that most people in industrialised countries now have it in their lungs. The official response to the asbestos risk followed a familiar pattern: repeated assurances of safety; a dogged insistence on proof of damage to health; accusations of press hysteria; a failure to carry out research and then belated, poorly enforced, half-measures. After- wards came the heavy human and economic cost of failing to take prompt action.

Asbestos is extraordinary stuff; fire resistant and virtually indestructible yet so fine and pliable that it can be spun like cloth. But its fineness makes it easy to breathe in and its indestructibility lets it stay in the lungs, and do its damage, over decades.

Its value and danger have long been known. It was used 4,500 years ago to strengthen clay pots while the elder Pliny noticed that slaves who worked with it got lung disease. But it was not until 1879 that the mineral embarked on its deadly conquest of the world, when Samuel Turner, a Rochdale businessman, spun 10 tons of it to lag steam engines, and gave birth to Turner & Newall.

The complacency and wishful thinking began soon afterwards. Dr Murray reported on his asbestos victim to a government inquiry in 1906, but added: "One hears ... that considerable trouble is now taken to prevent the inhalation of the dust so that the disease is not so likely as heretofore."

No comprehensive study of British asbestos workers was done until 1928. When this found that 80 per cent of those who had been in the industry for over 20 years had asbestosis, the Chief Inspector of Factories promised the industry would be "safe" within a decade. It was not. The first regulations appeared in 1931, but they were insufficient and unenforced. Mr Turner wrote to Mr Newall proposing "stretching the regulations for our own ends" and in the next 38 years, while workers died by the hundred, only two prosecutions were ever brought.

New hazards were emerging, only to be contested while "proof" was sought and disregarded after it was found. Lung cancers caused by asbestos were reported in the mid-1930s and found to be common 10 years later, but the link was not considered proved until 1955. It was the same with mesothelioma: 25 years passed after its emergence in the early 1940s before cause and effect were thought to be proved.

Even so, long-awaited regulations in 1969 aimed only to provide protection against asbestosis - and failed even to achieve that. Their "safety" levels were based on a single study carried out by Turner & Newall: one of the men who did the study admitted to me later that it was "not adequate for the purpose".

A series of articles in the Yorkshire Post in 1974 exposing an asbestos factory in Hebden Bridge where more than 250 workers died marked the beginning of the end. The local MP, Max Madden, started a campaign which led to a devastating inquiry and, eventually, to safety standards being so tightened that production effectively stopped. But by then the damage was done.