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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Alloysious Massaquoi, 'G' Hastings and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers are the surprise winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize
musicThe surprise winners of the Mercury Prize – and a very brief acceptance speech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
News
video
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

English Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English Teacher - Saffron ...

Primary Supply Teacher - Northants

£90 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Primary School Supply Teache...

Maths Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Maths Teacher - Saffro...

Chemistry Teacher - Top School in Malaysia - January Start

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain