Women to sue over asbestos illnesses: Wartime factory workers seek compensation for pain and suffering after exposure to risk during assembly of gas masks. Susan Watts reports

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The Independent Online
TWO ELDERLY women exposed to asbestos as they assembled gas masks during the Second World War at a Boots factory in Nottingham are seeking legal aid to sue the company over asbestos-related illnesses they contracted later.

They were part of a 1,600-strong workforce, 500 of whom have been identified as being at high risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses. Between 50 and 60 are known to have died of mesothelioma, a condition directly linked with asbestos in which a cancerous tumour envelopes the lungs then crushes them until they collapse. Many of the surviving women are suffering debilitating symptoms.

Several groups of scientists, including a Home Office pathologist, have been aware of the risks the women faced after studies on the workforce which began in 1965. Yet neither Boots, nor the researchers, nor the Nottingham health authority, informed the surviving women of their increased risks.

Boots and the scientists contacted those at greatest risk in the mid-1960s and 'invited them to participate in a survey of their state of health'. Boots said yesterday that individuals received personal consultations. But overall results were published only in the medical literature. The researchers found the death rate from mesothelioma was 150 times higher than that in a control group.

Jim Lester, Conservative MP for the Broxtowe constituency which includes the Boots complex, has been aware of the health problems for many years. Many of those at the site were employed by the Chief Inspector of Armaments through the Ministry of Supply. Mr Lester approached the MoD during the 1970s about setting up a no-fault compensation scheme. The MoD refused, and Boots has consistently denied liability.

Boots confirmed it has settled a compensation case with one woman from the factory with asbestosis.

Doris Roe, 77, and Florence Sewell, 83, are seeking compensation for their pain and suffering and the cost of future care. Their lawyers, Leigh Day of London, also want Boots to set up a no-fault scheme.

Boots produced gas masks between 1939 and 1945 at two sites in Nottingham. The women packed asbestos filters into the masks and stitched these in place.

They produced civilian and military masks. The military units used blue asbestos, a good defence against a potent arsenic gas called Blue Cross. Blue asbestos, or crocidolite, is many times more dangerous than the white form.

Another asbestosis sufferer, Mike Ward, 51, has carried out much of the research that has led to the women's claim. He worked with asbestos when 16 in the boiler room of the HMS Ark Royal.

His anger is directed not only at Boots and the MoD, but also at Professor Stephen Jones, a Home Office pathologist who has conducted many years of research with Boots on its Nottingham workers.

Professor Jones said: 'The disease they were getting (mesothelioma) is a very painful one, and inevitably fatal. I took the view that rather than worry them they would have to take their chances. Until they got the disease most of them were able to lead a full life.'

A spokesman for Boots said: 'This is not a Boots matter. We were one of a number of manufacturers of gas masks making these to a government specification.'

In a statement yesterday, the company said: 'The risks of mesothelioma now known to be associated with asbestos products had not then been identified and the safety precautions adopted by Boots were considered to set the standard for the industry.'