It took 80 years to act

Governments have ignored the dangers for most of this century, writes Geoffrey Lean

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.

News
In 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a 'dwarf planet'
scienceBut will it be reinstated?
Voices
voicesI like surprises - that's why I'm bringing them back to politics, writes Nigel Farage
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
news

As anti-Semitic attacks rise, Grant Feller re-evaluates his identity

Arts and Entertainment
Adam Levine plays a butcher who obsessively stalks a woman in Maroon 5's 'Animals' music video
music'Animals' video 'promotes sexual violence against women'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people Biographer says cinema’s enduring sex symbol led a secret troubled life
News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

News
The moon observed in visible light, topography and the GRAIL gravity gradients
science

...and it wasn't caused by an asteroid crash, as first thought

News
people
Life and Style
food and drink

Savoury patisserie is a thing now

News
Researchers say a diet of fatty foods could impede smell abilities
scienceMeasuring the sense may predict a person's lifespan
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Services Team Leader

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client, a prog...

Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare high quality opportunity for a...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £50 per day: Randstad Education Group: Job opportunities for SEN Teachin...

Secondary teachers required in King's Lynn

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary teachers re...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?