IoS letters special: Asbestos (29 November 2009)

Scores of harrowing personal stories followed our investigation last week into the plight of those who worked with asbestos. Here are just a few

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I was brought up in Clydebank where my father was a sheet- ironworker in John Brown's shipyard, the so-called pride of British shipbuilding. Your article relates to many stories he told me: making snowballs out of asbestos, kids hugging their fathers wearing asbestos-laden overalls, and women washing these clothes, all innocently unaware of the danger they were in.

We lived 100 yards from the gate of the shipyard from which many of Britain's finest ships were launched. My father would come home every lunchtime and teatime to see me and my brothers. Still in his boiler suit, he'd tell us with pride what he was doing on the ships. How I wish he had had nothing to do with the place.

My father died in February 2005 after suffering bouts of pneumonia and leukaemia, all related to the mesothelioma that lay dormant for 40 years. People in the higher echelons of the industry knew the dangers and said and did nothing. I still feel cheated and betrayed by the industry that knew what was happening around them and sat on their hands, kept their mouths shut and their heads down. Shame on every one of you.

J McKinlay

by email

Forty years ago I started work at Cockenzie power station in East Lothian. Some days it looked to be snowing, there was so much asbestos flying in the air caused by the removal of lagging. The station management said there was no need for us to worry. I left there in 1974 and have since learned of deaths and long-term health problems of former colleagues.

Thomas Stevenson

by email

In Hebden Bridge, we have what was the other Cape UK asbestos factory, Acre Mill at Old Town. People in the area are still dying from asbestosis and related illnesses. I find it incredible that so many of our generation and younger have no idea that people are still affected by the legacy of asbestos.

Mary Conroy

Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

This is an issue that has crippled more than a generation. My great-grandfather was an apprentice ship plater in the Devonshire yards in Barrow-in-Furness in the 1870s and 1880s. He died in 1900 at the age of 36, his death certificate listing "chronic bronchitis and emphysema, cardiac dilatation, dropsy. Heart failure". The family were plunged into the depths of poverty, followed by tragedies of the type one would expect from a novel by Thomas Hardy.

Carole Lewis

by email

My father is suffering from industry-related mesothelioma. Six weeks ago he seemed to be a perfectly fit and healthy 72-year-old. He has been given six months, and I am now preparing myself for his death from this deadly form of cancer. The Government needs to recognise the use of this deadly material as the cause of so many lung-related cancers and to admit responsibility. It will not bring any of these poor people back, or reduce their abhorrent suffering, but it will bring a sense of closure to so many of their relatives who endured their loved ones' suffering.

Catherine D Baquerizo

Dorchester, Dorset

My children and I have been placed in a flat with asbestos in various places including in the walls, storage areas and the main vent. No one wants to know when I phone the council because the clean-up operation is going to be so costly. We are the forgotten people, sent from pillar to post – eight different addresses in eight years – neglected by the Government because we are below the poverty line.

Elizabeth Stravoravdis

by email

I live in council accommodation in south London. After asbestos was removed by the council, I just vacuumed up the builder's rubble, not realising what I was doing. Environmental health analysis later found asbestos in the vacuum cleaner. This is a major epidemic and men, women and children will die.

Karen Connolly

by email

Here in Australia thousands of houses were built out of "Fibro" (Fibrous Asbestos Cement). Home renovators will become the next victims of asbestos. There are men and women whose parents renovated their house 20 or 30 years ago who are now being diagnosed with asbestosis.

There may also be many brake mechanics who suffer from this disease: brake pads were made out of asbestos.

Robert Pallister

Punchbowl New South Wales

My docker father died of the deadly lung disease. We lived in Limehouse, which was near the London docks where he worked. I used to always run up the street to meet him, and I recall him stamping his shoes and shaking his coat, then he just sat down with us, with his working trousers still on.

I had an X-ray recently because I was breathless. It showed a thickening in the pleural of the right lung. I was asked if I had been in contact with asbestos. My dad left me no money at all, but possibly with an asbestos-related lung disease. I do not blame him: he would not have wished this upon me. My brother died of lung disease, too, and he was also a docker. Thank you for highlighting this injustice.

Colleen Bennett

By email

My family and I were bought up in an asbestos-clad council house; I lived in it from the age of 11 until I married at 27. In that time we had a thunderbolt hit the house and repairs where carried out to damaged sheets of asbestos. When I was 15, I worked in a factory that made electric blankets. One of my tasks almost every Saturday for three years was to clean out part of the factory that made the cables for the blankets. These were made from spools of asbestos cord, which was milled before the element was intertwined with it. I used a handbrush and broom, inhaling dust and spores with no protection at all.

Later on, as a lorry driver, I delivered building materials containing asbestos.

I am now approaching 72 and suffer with the lung condition post-operative cognitive dysfunction (POCD). Only 30 per cent of my lungs work correctly.

George Dethridge

Cambridge

I worked for the JW Roberts subsidiary of Turner & Newall from 1963 to 1967. The company manufactured plastic composites, some of which were reinforced with woven asbestos cloth. I was very fortunate in that while having a travel jab my GP showed me an article in The Lancet on mesothelioma and its connection to the processing of asbestos. He said to me: "When you get back from holiday get a new job because asbestos dust is a killer." Being a young engineering manager it was easy in those days to find similar employment. Over the years I have attended funerals for five of my former teammates who contracted mesothelioma.

Keith Beckett

By email

My mother worked at the Cape in 1941-45. She used to tell me that the dust would cover their arms and overalls. In 2000, about three years before she died, chest X-rays revealed a dense cotton wool material that totally filled the bottom third of her lungs. The doctor said it was quite clearly asbestos dust. She carried that in her lungs for nearly 60 years.

Mike Bryan

By email

I don't begrudge victims of asbestos-related disease in the building industry one penny of their compensation awards, but surely it should not be funded by another vulnerable section of the community? My father was sued in 2007 by the widow of a former employee who sadly died from mesothelioma. The £250,000 claim represented my parents' entire disposable assets at the time. Their capital was seized, and the value of their house will be paid over to the claimant either when they sell it or when the last surviving partner dies. There are certainly other people in my father's position – decent, law-abiding people who have been "mugged" by this legislation, as my father sees it. While I hope Andrew Dismore MP is successful in winning compensation for sufferers of pleural plaques, care needs to be taken that the legislation doesn't provide yet another legal loophole for the asbestos producers and insurance industry.

Tracey Essery

by email

In 1984, when the dangers of asbestos were already well known, my chemistry practical class was made to use asbestos. We ladled it with a spatula out of a plastic packet into a glass tube. I bent right over and faced away, keeping my head as far away from it as possible. The headmaster said: "For heaven's sake, it's not blue asbestos." The extent to which children were endangered wants investigating, and stiff checks made on those teachers who favoured it, if they are still working.

Maurice Frank

South Queensferry, West Lothian

My brother died of mesothelioma in 2008 in horrendous agony. He was 65, had worked all his life as a decorator, and was looking forward to retiring. In his early thirties, he had worked with asbestos, cleaning and painting pipes. I cannot understand how people were allowed to work with asbestos when the dangers were clearly understood from 1955. This country owes these decent working men and women. If it was the Law Lords suffering, I suspect the insurance lobby would not have got the favourable result they wanted in 2007. This unjust ruling needs reversing. Your campaign is a great one and deserves success.

Carole Whitefield

By email

I didn't know about mesothelioma until my father died from it in January 2004. I didn't even know he had worked with asbestos. I thought carpenters worked with wood. But the exposure he had endured was not from his own hands; it was from the ever-present cloud of dust that permeated the air in his workplace where all manner of asbestos products were cut.

He died with dignity and spirit, but he shouldn't have died at all. The dangers of asbestos had been understood for a century. Nothing more than that need be said. Every last person who has been exposed to asbestos deserves all the compensation they can get because not one of them will have known that the dangers of asbestos have been recognised for a century. Do you really think any of them would have carried on working with it had they had that information?

Nicola Scarlett

by email

My husband worked for an engineering supply company in the East End of London for most of his life. In the 1950s he worked with asbestos, unloading lorry loads of it and getting covered in asbestos dust. In 2002 he was found to have a small tumour on his left lung and extensive asbestos plaque on both lungs. In July that year he had an operation to remove a carcinoid tumour and some of the plaque on his right lung.

The following year he inquired about some form of compensation and, after a very cursory medical examination, was told that he was not eligible for compensation as he did not have the "prescribed" disease. He has suffered a year of worry and extreme discomfort, and has no idea of how the "extensive asbestos plaque" he is left with will affect him in the future.

Valerie Bright

Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire

As a trade union tutor for many years, I was delighted when the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) came into force, because I felt that at long last we had substantial legislation which trade unions could use to safeguard workers' lives. However, all governments since then have failed to enforce the legislation as it was intended, with the result of employers quite literally getting away with murder.

I later worked at Southampton General Hospital and the most poignant moment of my life was meeting one of my former students in a clinic there with the very same industrial disease we'd discussed several decades earlier. Yes, our working class has been betrayed by politicians of all parties. The time to rectify this is long overdue and should be done without delay.

Carol Rowe

Eastleigh, Hampshire

I read your four-page investigation with much personal interest as my great-aunt Majorie Wells [pictured above], who is dying of mesothelioma, was featured. My uncle Frank Ford also worked at Cape Asbestos, alongside my great-aunt. My mum said he used to bring home asbestos offcuts to make blackboards. He died in 1993, in his sixties. My mother remembers mesothelioma being on his death certificate. Too many families are losing loved ones. Thank you, Emily Dugan and The Independent on Sunday, for spelling it out to them in black and white.

Lindsay Hollingsworth

by email

The Health and Safety Executive suggests that approximately 4,000 people across the UK are currently dying every year as a result of exposure to asbestos. But if "lung cancer" is written on the death certificate, I suspect that person's agony will escape the statistics. If the person dies of a heart attack while coughing frantically from an asbestos-related illness, the heart attack is the cause of death; that person will also, I suspect, escape the asbestos statistics.

A total figure for actual asbestosis deaths plus actual mesothelioma deaths, plus those cases where an asbestos illness was a major secondary cause of death, is probably between 40,000 and 60,000 per annum in the UK.

Since mid-2002 I have spoken to 109 acquaintances and workers who have told me about an associate who died from asbestos. Given that I speak to a minute fraction of the UK population, this is a very significant number – horrendous, in fact.

Ian M Pass

Horsham, West Sussex

A quarter of the 4,000 annual asbestos deaths are from the construction industry. After years of publicity about the dangers, we face complacency from some in the industry who believe that asbestos is a problem of yesterday. Young construction workers coming into the business continue to believe that the "asbestos issue" has been dealt with. The truth is that people in the industry today face very real risks from asbestos, particularly in relation to the refurbishing and maintenance of social housing and schools.

Michelle Aldous

Chief Executive

Constructing Better Health

Crawley, West Sussex

My husband died in March from asbestosis, aged 83 years old, after a life of pain and agony. When he left the Merchant Navy he hoped to become a doctor, but unfortunately worked for 10 months in the laboratories at Cape Asbestos. His job was to collect the asbestos from the factory, mix it with various resins and then pack it into a metal cast of a brake shoe. He wore no mask and was very conscious that other people in the lab suffered from breathing difficulties. When he asked me to marry him he told me that, before I answered, I should know that he was a registered asbestos worker and he might be ill or die of a lung disease. We are now seeking compensation but I would rather not have to remember the agony that my husband had to endure.

Pam Syrett

by email

Exposure to asbestos claims more lives than traffic accidents, but without the same levels of public awareness. Those who face the greatest risk today are tradesmen – plumbers and plasterers, builders and joiners, electricians, painters and decorators. Each week around 20 of them die from asbestos-related diseases.

But the risk from asbestos is more than the legacy of an industrial age. It may be present in any building constructed or refurbished before 2000, and an estimated 500,000 workplaces contain it, as well as many more domestic buildings. We owe it to our current generation of tradesmen to learn the lessons of history and talk about the risks and how they can be managed. We cannot allow this hidden killer to claim another generation in silence.

Brendan Barber

General Secretary, TUC

Dame Helena Shovelton

Chief Executive, British Lung Foundation and seven other signatories

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