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|ISSN 1470-8108||Issue 102||Atumn-Winter 2016-17|
The historic announcement last month (December 2016) that Canada, for most of the 20th century the worlds leading supplier of chrysotile (white) asbestos, would ban the mining, export, import, use and sale of asbestos fiber and asbestos-containing products by 2018 continues to reverberate around the world.1 The significance of this policy U-turn was enormous and was recognized as such by leading ban asbestos campaigners in a December 15 press release: it was the Canadian Government which brought a case against the French asbestos ban to the World Trade Organization, Canadian politicians who led the veto of United Nations actions to regulate the global asbestos trade and Canadian civil servants and vested interests which orchestrated global pro-asbestos marketing initiatives.2
This development has both short and long-term implications for an industry which is in terminal decline. There is no way public relations specialists can spin this news that will bolster efforts by the asbestos industry to sell their deadly wares throughout the industrializing world. In the absence of the friendly Canadian frontman to sanitize pro-asbestos propaganda, it is more likely that government ministers, trade unions and consumers will turn their back on discredited industry-funded research in favour of advice from the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, all of which agree that the best way to protect human beings from deadly exposures is to stop the use of asbestos.
The news from Canada has a particular relevance for people in the UK. As recently as 1995, the UK imported 10,143 tonnes of asbestos,3 83% (8,430 tonnes) came from Canada.4 It is widely believed that throughout the 20th century, 7 million tonnes of asbestos were consumed in the UK, a country with no asbestos mines; judging by the figures cited above, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the majority of the asbestos imported originated in Canada. UK asbestos victims groups, in collaboration with trade unions and NGOs, have been at the forefront of demonstrations over Canadas leadership of the global asbestos lobby on multiple occasions. In 2010, two such events were held including one on Canada Day (July 1)5and another on December 9 in support of the Asian Solidarity Mission to Quebec.6 These high-profile and public manifestations were, said Graham Dring, Chair of the Forum of Asbestos Victim Support Groups, an acknowledgment of the role played by Canada in the promotion of asbestos sales the world over. Commenting on Canadas ban, Mr. Dring said:
This news is long overdue but welcome nonetheless. Canadian workers and members of the public have died in their thousands from toxic exposures as have populations in countries where Canadian asbestos was sent. The ban, when it comes in, will be an important first step in making Canada a safer place for all its citizens. While celebrating this landmark achievement, we remember those whose lives have been lost to Canadian asbestos and urge the Government in Ottawa to support work by United Nations agencies and other international bodies to end asbestos use.
Hard won progress was achieved by UK asbestos activists during the last few months of 2016 with proposals to delete corporate records reversed; additional funding secured for mesothelioma research; an official investigation into suspicions regarding the import of asbestos-containing materials successfully concluded; and the initiation of High Court proceedings over a covert operation to infiltrate the ban asbestos network.
In August, 2016, members of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK (the Forum) and other interested parties had been flabbergasted when The Guardian reported that proposals had been made by Companies House to delete more than 2.5m public records7 and reduce the time records of dissolved companies were retained from twenty to six years. Whilst the article highlighted the implications of this destructive process for investigations into white collar crime and money laundering, the adverse consequences for asbestos claimants, who had received toxic workplace exposures decades earlier, were of equal import the loss of documentation would almost certainly compromise the ability of victims to establish the identity of negligent employers and their insurers, facts which are crucial in bringing a personal injury claim for compensation. Calls for public consultation over the plans were made in interchanges between stakeholding groups and Companies House personnel, ministers and MPs with several questions asked in Parliament.8 On November 17, 2016, Margot James, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, responding to a question asked by Martin Docherty-Hughes, MP (West Dunbartonshire) reassured the House that:
The Government has no current plans to bring forward proposals to reduce the period of time that Companies House retains records of dissolved companies. Nevertheless, we will continue to keep the retention period under review, during which time the Registrar of Companies will ensure there is no destruction of records. Additionally, any future proposal to change the retention period would be subject to public consultation.9
On November 24, The Guardian reported these developments quoting Graham Dring, Chair of the Forum: This decision is, he said good news for victims of mesothelioma and other long-tail industrial diseases who already face an uphill struggle securing justice in the courts. If these proposals had gone ahead it would have denied access to justice to many asbestos victims unable to pursue a negligent employer or their insurer.10
The long latency period for asbestos-related diseases is a well-known obstacle in securing the acknowledgment of harm done and obtaining restitution for the injured. These and other injustices faced by victims were highlighted in a one hour debate on mesothelioma which took place in the House of Lords on October 27, 2016.11 During interventions by Lord Wills, Baroness Couttie, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe, Lord Alton of Liverpool, Lord Giddens, Lord Freyberg, Baroness Walmsley and Lord McKenzie of Luton the following points were raised:
Within days of this debate and eight months after the Government had revealed the allocation of £5 million for the establishment of a National Mesothelioma Research Center at Imperial College, a further £5 million donation was announced to support work undertaken by mesothelioma researchers at two specialist centers: the University of Leicester and Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (Cambridge). Speaking on behalf of the Foundation which made this bequest, Canadian businessman and philanthropist Victor Dahdaleh said he hoped the donation:
matching the government funding announced earlier this year, will enhance research programmes and enable closer collaboration between all those working hard to bring tangible benefits to patients affected by this dreadful disease.12
Both Professor Dean Fennell, Chair of Thoracic Medical Oncology at the University of Leicester, and Dr. Robert Rintoul, Consultant Respiratory Physician, Lead Clinician for Cancer and Director of the Papworth Hospital Clinical Trials Unit Collaboration, warmly welcomed this funding which will enable them, as Professor Fennel said, to develop innovative treatments in the fight against mesothelioma, offering new hope to people who have been diagnosed with the disease and help to transform their lives.
An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regarding the import of building materials from China by Yuanda UK Co. Ltd.13 was concluded after three months this autumn. Details provided in correspondence dated October 31, 2016 from Ms. H. Doherty of the Compliance Branch of the Chemicals Regulation Division were as follows:
A multidisciplinary investigation was carried out I have considered reports of asbestos sampling and analysis provided by Yuanda (UK) Co. Ltd, and by the principal contractor at a site known as 1 Blackfriars.
I have also considered independent sampling and analysis was carried out by HSL. The HSL sampling was carried out both in situ and at the 1 Blackfriars site, and from within the supply chain for 1 Blackfriars. Additional supply chain sampling covered another ongoing project and two completed projects which had returned excess material to the warehouse.
All analysis of samples carried out by the Health and Safety Laboratories or by company appointed laboratories, returned results that indicated there was no asbestos present in any sample
Given that no evidence has been found to indicate the presence of asbestos, and looking at all the available information in detail, it has been decided to close the investigation and take no further action.14
The reassurance provided in October by the findings of the HSE review in the Yuanda case was somewhat diminished by reports the same month that a recall had been issued for 1.3 litre stainless steel thermos flasks imported to the UK from China under the brand name thermate, which contained asbestos fibers.15 With austerity cuts affecting the HSE and trading standards teams around the country, it is becoming ever more likely that toxic products will make their way into the country.
Asbestos victims in the UK and the groups which work with them are under constant attack by vested interests which are resolute in their determination to whittle down compensation payments and create legal and administrative obstacles in order to minimize the asbestos liabilities of negligent companies and insurers. The day-to-day struggle to preserve victims rights and improve the medical and political climate in which the civil liberties of those affected can be secured is relentless. A new low, however, even for asbestos vested interests was reached with a covert intelligence operation run by the London-based company K2 Intelligence Ltd. which was put into action by a British agent tasked with infiltrating the network of UK and international campaigners working on behalf of asbestos victims. The discovery of this million dollar four-year espionage campaign has led to a civil case currently before the High Court.16 This is not over.
Scotlands industrial history has left behind a legacy of asbestos mortality which continues to impact on the lives of its citizens. Between 2010 and 2014, 1,016 people died from the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma in Scotland with 21% (218) and 25% (257) of deaths occurring respectively in the north and south east of the country and (541) 53% in the west; the majority of deaths occurred in men aged over 65.17 On November 4, 2016, a Mesothelioma Roundtable was convened at the Scottish Parliament by Kezia Dugdale Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Lothian and Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, and Edinburgh campaigner Julie Roberts, whose father Gordon Roberts and uncle Jim Hamilton died from mesothelioma within six weeks of each other in 2015.18 The objectives of the meeting were to consider ways to improve the medical outcome for those affected and raise awareness of the disease throughout the country; input from key stakeholders including representatives of Mesothelioma UK, Macmillan Cancer Support, the British Lung Foundation, the Health and Safety Executive, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Scottish support groups informed the debate. Thanking all the delegates for their participation, Ms. Dugdale said:
Mesothelioma, with its link to asbestos, is a disease that leaves certain demographics more susceptible such as those in many communities employed in the construction and manufacturing industry during the 1970s and 1980s.
In the coming weeks I will continue to develop this plan alongside all those who attended the discussion and anyone else who wants to help us fight mesothelioma. I will take our plan direct to the Scottish Parliament and ask the Scottish Government and other political parties to work with us to ensure cancer stops being a deprivation disease in Scotland.
Less than eight weeks after the roundtable, a motion that the Parliament recognises the need to tackle mesothelioma was the subject of a one hour debate at the Scottish Parliament. The session on December 20 provided the opportunity for politicians to consider how with Scottish Government support, Scotland can be a world leader in improving research, care and access to support for those affected by mesothelioma.19 During interventions from MSPs Kezia Dugdale, Stuart McMillan, Donald Cameron, Anas Sarwar, Ben Macpherson, Jackie Baillie, Miles Briggs Emma Harper and Iain Gray key points raised included the following;
In her comments to MSPs, Aileen Campbell, Minister for Public Health and Sport, underlined the Governments awareness of the importance of early diagnoses for all types of cancer saying: The earlier a cancer can be diagnosed, the better the chance of a more positive outcome and, referring to suggestions by MSPs Jackie Baillie and Iain Gray regarding recovering funds from negligent employers, said more would be done:
The Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament have a strong record on supporting those who have been negligently exposed to asbestos, and significant provision regarding the law and damages for personal injuries has been made over the years, including through a number of bits of legislation most recently, the Damages (Asbestos-related Conditions) Scotland Act 2009 and, supporting that, the Damages (Scotland) Act 2011.
Judicial developments north of the border in December 2016 suggest that the Courts as well as the Parliament are mindful of the devastation caused by mesothelioma not just to the individual but to his/her entire family. On December 1, 2016, the Court of Sessions dismissed an attempt by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to bar adult stepchildren and one grandchild of former dockyard worker Ian Hunter from claiming damages for his mesothelioma death in December 2015.20 The MoD challenged the pursuers right to proceed under the Damages Scotland Act 2011, on the basis of their respective ages alleging that at the ages of 33 (Garry 2nd pursuer), 36 (Sharon fifth pursuer) and 19 (Sharleen seventh pursuer) the claimants were not entitled to sue as a a child or grandchild of the family. Dismissing the MoDs argument, Lord Mulholland said:
All these factors taken individually and collectively all point in favour of a definition defined by relationship and not age In the present case defining child by reference to relationship (and not age) will not strain the meaning and produce injustice, absurdity, anomaly or contradiction, in fact quite the opposite.21
Asbestos in Schools
In the stalemate which persists regarding asbestos contamination of the UKs educational infrastructure, regional newspapers have in recent weeks run features highlighting the ubiquity of the problem. On January 3, 2017, the Bath Chronicle revealed that 92% of local authority schools contained asbestos;22 a fortnight earlier, an article in SomersetLive listed 264 academies, independent and local authority schools which were similarly affected.23 The situation in Bristol,24 Dorset, East London and elsewhere was, according to online reports, also presenting cause for concern25 while the unwelcome discovery of asbestos in a church organ in Swansea in December forced the congregation from St James' Church to relocate for Christmas holiday services. 26
Mesothelioma Report 2016
On December 8, 2016, the National Lung Cancer Audit Pleural Mesothelioma Report 2016 (for the audit period 2014) was launched by the Royal College of Physicians in collaboration with Mesothelioma UK.27 Although an increase in one year survival rates was found from 40% in 2008-2012 to 43% in some areas, most patients succumbed to this disease in under a year.28 Trends observed in the two years since the first report on malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM) had been published included the following:
In general, anti-cancer treatment and use of palliative chemotherapy has increased since the previous audit in 2014, with 36.5% of all patients receiving it compared to 34% in the last audit. Use of radiotherapy for MPM appears to have reduced since the last audit and was received by 16.5% of patients compared to 29% previously. Although surgical intervention is rare, the number of procedures taking place has increased since the last audit from 2.3% to 5.2%.
The authors recommended various measures for improving care, treatments and outcomes for MPM patients via:
The Role of Specialist Mesothelioma Multidisciplinary Teams
The first study describing the role of specialist multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) for patients with mesothelioma was published by the British Medical Journal in September 2016. The authors concluded that meetings of these teams:
provided the opportunity to review diagnoses, offer advice on investigations and treatment, and encourage recruitment to clinical trials. Evaluation of the service at this single-centre MDT meeting suggests specialist mesothelioma MDT meetings can add value to patient care, without introducing significant time delays.29
1 Grant T. Canadas move to ban asbestos a win for public health' but long overdue: advocates. December 15, 2016.
2 Press Release. Historic Canadian Asbestos Ban! December 15, 2016.
4 Asbestos Institute. Chrysotile Asbestos: An Overview. 25 September 2001.
5 Kazan-Allen L. Canadian Asbestos Still a Global Concern. July 5, 2010.
6 Kazan-Allen L. December 9: London Day of Action. 2010.
7 Siddique H. Labour urges PM to drop plans to delete company records. August 3, 2016.
8 Kazan-Allen L. The UK Asbestos Landscape Summer 2016. British Asbestos Newsletter. Issue 101.
9 Companies House: Written question 52747. Answered by Margot James. 17 November 2016.
10 Siddique H. Companies House abandons plan to delete 2.5m public records. November 24, 2016.
11 House of Lords. Mesothelioma Debate. October 27, 2016.
12 Victor Dahdaleh Foundation Makes Landmark Donation to Mesothelioma Research. November 4, 2016.
13 UK Asbestos Alert: Update. August 15, 2016.
15 Thermate Thermos Flask Product Recall. October 14, 2016.
16 Cobain I. Corporate spy infiltrated anti-asbestos campaign, court told. December 8, 2016.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/08/k2-corporate-spy-infiltrated-anti-asbestos-campaign-court-told
17 Scottish Cancer Registry. Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma Incidence by NHS Region of Residence, Scotland: period 2010-2014. March 2016.
18 Edinburgh woman launches campaigner to raise awareness of killer dust. August 9, 2016.
19 Hansard. Tackling Mesothelioma in Scotland. December 20, 2016.
20 MoDs motion to dismiss asbestos-related damages claim by deceased dockyard workers stepchildren rejected. December 5, 2016.
21 Verdict. Brenda Gray et al against The Advocate General for Scotland as representing the Ministry of Defence in Scotland. December 1, 2016.
22 Moorcraft B. 71 out of 77 local authority schools and academies in Bath area contain asbestos. January 3, 2017.
23 Linham L. The 264 Somerset schools where asbestos is present have been revealed. December 22, 2016.
24 Yong M. More than 200 schools in Bristol region have asbestos still in their buildings. January 4, 2017.
25 Asbestos still prevalent in more than 100 Dorset schools. December 13, 2016.
26 Asbestos found in church organ forces Swansea congregation to hold Christmas services elsewhere. December 20, 2016
27 National Lung Cancer Audit. National Lung Cancer Audit Pleural Mesothelioma Report 2016 (for the audit period 2014). December 8, 2016.
28 Royal College of Physicians. New mesothelioma lung cancer data shows increase in 1 year survival despite regional variation in treatment. December 8, 2016.
29 Bibby AC, Williams K. et al. What is the role of a specialist regional mesothelioma multidisciplinary team meeting? A service evaluation of one tertiary referral centre in the UK. September 2016.
Compiled by Laurie Kazan-Allen