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|ISSN 1470-8108||Issue 62||Spring 2006|
As the Law Lords began hearing the appeal by defendants in mesothelioma test cases on March 13, 2006, protestors gathered in Parliament Square to show their support for Sylvia Barker and Mary Murray, asbestos widows whose claims for the negligent deaths of their husbands were being reconsidered in the 19th century building across the street. Scottish demonstrators took the early morning flight from Prestwick Airport; trains brought English protestors from Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Rochdale and Cheshire. From towns across the southeast and from London itself, they came by van, underground and bicycle. On a bright and bitterly cold winter's day, they stood on a street corner in central London with their banners and placards, photographs and memories. Some posed for photographs, some gave interviews but mostly they stood, their presence a visible reminder of what had been lost; of families shattered and lives destroyed, of husbands dead 30 years prematurely and sons dying before mothers. The wind whipped round the corner and MPs crossed the street to voice their support. And still they stood, talking quietly in small groups of lives blighted by work in shipyards, power stations, schools and factories: asbestos victims and widows, daughters and sons. Prohibited by the police from using public speaking equipment, they huddled closer together to hear the comments by those representing various sectors of the community. On behalf of the Forum of Asbestos Victims Support Groups, Tony Whitston thanked the demonstrators for their solidarity and condemned the attempt to deprive the claimants, and others like them, of the compensation they were due. Expressing his concern at the latest ploy to strip mesothelioma sufferers of their rights, MP Michael Clapham pointed out that the process of bringing a personal injury action whilst suffering from a fatal disease is both stressful and demeaning. The reappraisal of the industrial benefit system which is now underway must, he said, take cognizance of the needs of asbestos victims. Tony O'Brien, from the Construction Safety Campaign, highlighted the continuing risk to workers of millions of tons of asbestos-containing products hidden within the country's infrastructure; O'Brien stressed the need for prevention, as there is no cure for asbestos-related illnesses.
Ten years after his death at the age of fifty-seven, Mr. Barker's case arrived in the House of Lords after the High Court (2003) and Court of Appeal (2004) had ruled in favor of the claim. Mrs. Barker said: I'm angry that after these people took away Vernon's life, they are adding insult to injury. They admitted that they should have protected him from asbestos. Why should they get the law changed to save them paying for what they have done. Speaking before the hearing at the Lords began, Mrs. Murray, who is defending verdicts reached in 2004 by the Sunderland County Court and the Court of Appeal, said:
I have had 7 years of misery since John died from this terrible disease. I would rather have him back any day and they could keep the money. But it was the employers' fault that he was taken away from me. I just think employers and insurance companies care more about the money than they do about being fair to people like me and my husband who suffered so much.
Payments amounting to £152,000 (Barker) and £45,000 (Murray) are being contested by defendants, Saint Gobain Pipelines and British Shipbuilders respectively, which maintain that liability for mesothelioma, a disease formerly classed as indivisible, should be apportioned. The defendants also contend that asbestos exposure whilst self-employed should preclude claims against employers for negligent exposure. Should the Law Lords issue a defendants' verdict compensation for mesothelioma sufferers will almost certainly be compromised as many worked for multiple employers or engaged in periods of self-employment; such an outcome would constitute a windfall for British insurers who could, in the coming decades, reap the benefit of hundreds of millions of pounds of withheld compensation payments. A fundamental element of English common law is the concept of joint and several liability, a principle that was upheld by the unanimous House of Lords decision (2002) in Fairchild v Glenhaven Funeral Services. The Barker appellants argue, however, that as the Fairchild decision did not consider the scope of liability attaching to specific defendants, it is incumbent upon the Law Lords to apportion liability by quantifying the extent that a defendant's negligence increased the claimant's risk of contracting mesothelioma. The appeal is widely regarded as part and parcel of an evolving strategy by UK defendants desperate to contain asbestos liabilities which have been estimated at £8-£20 billion ($15-$38 bn).1 The decision is expected by the Summer.
The rights of all asbestos victims are under threat from the coordinated onslaught by defendants and their insurers. Claimants with pleural plaques constitute, by far, the most numerous class of potential asbestos litigants.2 On January 26, 2006 in Rothwell v Chemical & Insulating Co. Ltd., the Court of Appeal reversed 20 years of case law when it ruled that pleural plaques were not a compensable condition. Lord Justices Phillips and Longmore found that there is no legal basis for aggregating three separate parts of a claim which, individually could not justify an award of compensation, but together produce sufficient damage to give rise to a claim. The Justices were persuaded by the defendants that there are a number of reasons of policy why it is undesirable that the development of pleural plaques should give rise to a cause of action.3 This decision attracted extensive criticism in an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on January 31, 2006. Referring to a consortium of companies on behalf of which Norwich Union advanced the argument that inert pleural plaques are not a health risk, MP John Battle said:
There is one question that we should be asking the insurance companies, and I would be very interested to ask it. We should say, 'Okay, you say pleural plaques don't count. You say if I've got them, they're inert and don't really matter. So can I have life insurance? How long will you give me?' I bet my bottom dollar that they would cut back provision and increase my premium if I had pleural plaques. Well, they cannot have it both ways: they cannot ask me to pay more because I have pleural plaques, but go to court the day after and tell me that they do not count for anything and will not kill me. They are having it both ways, and we should expose the scandalous way in which they are trying to move away from the problem. Insurers who deduct from life insurance but who campaign to say that pleural plaques do not count should be challenged.
The pleural plaque judgment and the appeals by defendants in the Barker and Murray cases illustrate UK plc's slash and burn strategy to avoid asbestos liabilities. These are worrying times for the growing number of UK citizens whose health has been damaged by exposure to the magic mineral.
According to the latest UK government data, 3,500 people die of asbestos-related cancer every year; 51% of the fatalities are due to malignant mesothelioma. As bad as things are, they will get worse; epidemiologists predict that the annual mesothelioma death toll could rise by 30% within the next decade. Predictions made by epidemiologists last year were grim: Between 1968 and 2050, there will have been approximately 90,000 deaths from mesothelioma in Great Britain, 65,000 of which will occur after 2001.4 While knowledge about HIV/AIDS, a condition which is responsible for 500 UK deaths a year,5 is common, few people have heard of mesothelioma. Many sufferers report confusion when they are diagnosed with a disease, the name of which they must learn to pronounce. Adding to their sense of isolation is the lack of support services for sufferers and the absence of government funding for mesothelioma research. To increase awareness of this epidemic, asbestos victims' groups, trade unions and NGOs in Scotland and England coordinated a range of events on February 27, 2006: Action Mesothelioma Day. At conferences, workshops, memorial services, balloon rallies and demonstrations, mesothelioma sufferers, their relatives and supporters commemorated those whose lives have been lost and demanded justice for survivors. A Charter of Rights for Mesothelioma Victims, drafted during the Mesothelioma Summit held in London on March 9, 2005, was a focal point of the national debate.6 During the day, representatives of the British Lung Foundation (BLF), accompanied by MPs, asbestos victims and bereaved relatives, delivered a petition with more than 14,000 signatures to 10 Downing Street. That afternoon, Michael Clapham, MP and Chair of the Asbestos Sub-Committee of the House of Commons, hosted a well-attended reception in Westminster to ensure that the plight of UK asbestos victims remained high on the political agenda. Early Day Motion 1696: Action Mesothelioma Day, proposed by Clapham and signed by scores of MPs, supports the 15 point Mesothelioma Charter which calls for faster diagnosis, better treatment and care services, more funding for research and prevention of future asbestos exposure and urges the Government and the Cancer Tsar to make mesothelioma a national priority.7
The legacy of Scotland's widescale use of asbestos in shipbuilding and heavy industry includes numerous mesothelioma victims. As generation followed generation into the shipyards, asbestos diseases took their toll on asbestos-exposed workers, family members and local people. According to an analysis by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE):
The area with the highest SMR (Standardised Mortality Ratio) in excess of six times the average for Great Britain was the UA (Unitary Authority) of West Dunbartonshire in Scotland and this is likely to be primarily due to shipbuilding. Other Scottish port and dockyard areas with significantly elevated SMRs include the UAs of East Dunbartonshire, Fife, Glasgow City, Inverclyde, and Renfrewshire. Scotland as a whole has a significantly higher SMR than the average for Great Britain.8
In recognition of the devastation caused by asbestos in Glasgow, the Clydebank Asbestos Group hosted an International Asbestos Conference on February 27 in Clydebank Town Hall, a location within spitting distance of a site previously occupied by John Brown & Company, a shipbuilder that routinely exposed thousands of its employees to high levels of asbestos. Opening the conference, Councillor Andy White, Conference Chair and Leader of West Dunbartonshire Council, told a capacity audience that the tragic lessons learned in Scotland should not be forgotten. White condemned recent proposals to relax regulations for work with asbestos-containing textured coatings such as Artex, accusing the HSE of being more concerned with cost-cutting than in ending the asbestos epidemic. UK asbestos victims deserve a better deal than the one they are receiving; White urged the Government to support the Mesothelioma Charter, a document which sets out a range of rights and services mesothelioma patients and their families should receive. Local MP John McFall spoke of the quiet epidemic of asbestos-related disease which had been visited on the community. Setting the Clydebank epidemic within a wider context, McFall was convinced of the need for a worldwide campaign to ban asbestos.
The participation of speakers from South Africa and Canada brought an international dimension to the proceedings. Dr. Lindiwe Mabuza, the South African High Commissioner to the UK, spoke eloquently of the consequences of her country's asbestos past; a past which included amosite, crocidolite and chrysotile mining operations. Asbestos, she said, had devoured workers, children and communities. Asbestos dust was everywhere in South Africa's mining communities: the true figure of deaths will never be known because they were recorded as natural deaths or tuberculosis. The High Commissioner exposed the double standards of European companies, like Cape PLC, which continued to mine asbestos in developing countries after restrictions had been introduced at home. Four million pounds have already been spent by the South African government to rehabilitate redundant asbestos mines and dumpsites; another 12 million pounds is needed. None of the asbestos multinationals have contributed to the cost of the massive clean-up that is needed. Dr. Sophia Kisting, a medical doctor who worked closely with asbestos-affected communities in South Africa, emphasized the common thread joining Scottish and South African workers; much of the asbestos used in Scotland came from South African mines. The great disparities in occupational, environmental and living conditions which existed prior to 1994, continue to impact on the lives of South Africans with poor, rural and disadvantaged communities carrying a disproportionate burden of the country's asbestos legacy. Five hundred and sixty asbestos waste dumps litter the countryside; other contaminated sites remain undiscovered. The youngest mesothelioma victim Dr. Kisting treated was 24 years old; he died in April 2005 having experienced environmental asbestos exposure as a child. Some progress on obtaining compensation for the injured has been achieved through the empowerment of civil society. The Asbestos Relief Trust, created after protracted negotiations involving asbestos victims, their legal representatives, community groups, multinational corporations and the government is, Dr. Kisting reflected, a possible model for the resolution of other complex challenges.
The tragic effects of Canada's asbestos history were the subject of the joint presentation by Drs. Jim Brophy and Margaret Keith from the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), a movement established by Canadian trade unions. As long ago as 1918, American and Canadian insurers were refusing to insure Canadian asbestos workers. And yet, the mining of asbestos and use of asbestos-containing products in Canada continued unabated throughout the 20th century. Sarnia, Ontario, home to 20% of Canada's oil refineries and 40% of the country's chemical industry, is nicknamed Chemical Valley by workers injured by asbestos and other occupational pollutants. Asbestos was used in the production of insulation material at the Holmes Foundry, Sarnia from 1919 to 1988. In 1973 government inspectors recorded fiber counts at Holmes of 852 f/cc. In their report, they noted: The figure of 852 is probably the highest asbestos fiber concentration ever recorded. In 1987, a report by a Ministry of Labor scientist documented a six-fold increase in lung cancer, a seven-fold increase in respiratory disease mortality and five mesothelioma deaths amongst 152 Holmes employees who had worked with asbestos in the period 1956-1974. In the early 1990s, the Ministry of Labor for the Ontario Government compared data from 4 plants in Ontario: the lung cancer rate amongst former Holmes workers was four times the expected rate.
The OHCOW Clinic in Sarnia works closely with local people to research government reports and files, disseminate information and collect medical data. It has assisted the injured to claim compensation for asbestos-related injuries and has pioneered new techniques such as mapping, a process by which workers document industrial facilities and processes through which hazardous exposures occurred. Drs. Brophy and Keith deplored their government's pro-asbestos position; they urged conference delegates to communicate their opinion of Canada's political and economic support of this deadly industry to Ottawa and support the campaign for a global asbestos ban.
Several speakers described the lack of services and inequalities experienced by UK mesothelioma sufferers. Dr. Jeremy Steele, Chair of Mesothelioma UK, and Consultant Medical Oncologist from St. Bartholomew's Hospital, confirmed the inconsistency of medical treatment saying that most mesothelioma patients are not receiving treatment. Alimta, which can alleviate symptoms, is either not considered or denied on cost grounds by primary care trusts. Steele criticized the use of brutal and inconclusive medical procedures such as biopsy by Abrams needle and recommended that only highly experienced doctors, working as part of multi-disciplinary teams, should treat mesothelioma patients. Dr. Helen Clayson, Clinical Director of St. Mary's Hospice and Founding Member of Barrow Asbestos-Related Disease Support Group, discussed the healthcare experiences and emotions of mesothelioma sufferers and their families in Barrow-in-Furness, Leeds and Doncaster. The use of actual quotes from interviewees injected a personal dimension to the data and findings she presented. Much more could be done, Dr. Clayson concluded, to improve the palliative services on-offer. Solicitor Frank Maguire highlighted a glaring inequality in the Scottish legal system whereby mesothelioma claimants are forced to chose between bringing a personal injury case whilst they are still alive or leaving their surviving family members to take legal action after their death; a case brought post-mortem is worth more than one brought earlier. Consultation on whether the Scottish Executive will pass a bill to end this inequity is currently taking place in the Scottish Parliament; if nothing is done, Maguire recommended, this should be an issue in the 2007 Holyrood elections. The recent decision by the Court of Appeal which reversed twenty years of precedents regarding compensation for pleural plaques is an insult to asbestos claimants and should, if the House of Lords does not reverse the decision, be acted upon by the Scottish Parliament, Maguire concluded.
The human and financial costs of asbestos-related diseases were the subjects of presentations by Bob Dickie, Chair of Clydebank Asbestos Group, and Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling. West Dunbartonshire is the mesothelioma capital of Europe, Dickie said. In the 1990s, local people had reacted to the growing epidemic of asbestos disease by forming community-based victim support groups: Clydeside Action on Asbestos and the Clydebank Asbestos Group. These groups led major campaigns, including those against the Compensation Recovery Unit's clawback of benefits from asbestos victims, Cape plc's treatment of South African asbestos victims and the attempts by Chester Street Insurance and T&N Ltd. to minimize payouts to injured claimants. A letter received by the Clydebank group from Mr. and Mrs. Peter McIntyre illustrated one of the many inequalities still faced by mesothelioma victims. Mr. McIntyre, who was born in Glasgow, trained as a marine engineer apprentice in the dockyards of Stephen, Alexander & Sons in Clydebank before moving to England. In December, 2005, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma and within a few weeks was informed by the local primary care trust that the use of Alimta had not been approved for his treatment; the £50,000 needed to obtain private treatment is unavailable to the family. Since the Scottish Medicines Consortium ruled that Alimta was acceptable, in combination with Cisplatin, for the treatment of advanced cases of malignant pleural mesothelioma in August 2005, many patients in Scotland have benefited from a reduction in debilitating symptoms such as chest pain, breathlessness and coughing. Conference delegates were disgusted that such a promising treatment was being denied to Mr. McIntyre because he now lived in England; to widespread approval, trade unionist Jim Marshall called for a national campaign to over-turn the healthcare post-code lottery. Compounding the human tragedy of asbestos misuse are the financial consequences to a country which has a public not private health service. Research undertaken by Dr. Watterson and colleagues has, for the first time, quantified the costs to the National Health Service (NHS) of treating asbestos victims. The annual acute in-patient costs for the mesothelioma patients who died in Scotland in 2000 were £942,038.9 Extrapolating that to the UK, produces a figure in excess of £16 million for the treatment of mesothelioma patients in 2000 and an estimate for the total money spent in the UK for the treatment of mesothelioma over the period 1990-1999 of £471,019,000. These costs have been borne by taxpayers and not the corporations which profited from the sale or use of asbestos-containing goods.
During the discussion which followed the formal presentations, Joan Baird, whose husband Willie died from mesothelioma, spoke about the despicable behaviour of negligent employers whose overriding concern is minimizing compensation payments in order to maximize share prices. Other asbestos widows condemned government inaction, saying that if action had been taken sooner their husbands would not have died. Conference delegates expressed their determination to:
On a blustery and grey February day in Scotland, the attendance of 350 concerned citizens at the Clydebank conference constituted an overwhelming endorsement of the importance of Action Mesothelioma Day. Within days of the conference, Des McNulty, Member of the Scottish Parliament for Clydebank and Milngavie, lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament which highlighted the importance of the conference, endorsed the Mesothelioma Charter and welcomed the start of a year-long campaign to raise awareness of mesothelioma.10
In Newcastle, the day was marked by a Mesothelioma Seminar, organized by the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Research Fund. Addressing the meeting, Professor Hilary Calvert of the Northern Institute of Cancer Research said that immediate action in the form of education and research is essential. Dr. Tim Peel, Consultant in General and Respiratory Medicine in North Tyneside, echoed Calvert's sense of urgency: It is essential that money is invested now to accelerate improvement in treatment and research for a cure. With its illustrious shipbuilding history, Newcastle is, like West Dunbartonshire, a mesothelioma hotspot. Local nurse Anne Craig lost her husband to mesothelioma in 2002; Dave, a keen cyclist, had worked at a Tyneside shipyard. Speaking from first-hand experience, Anne told seminar delegates:
Mesothelioma is a particularly cruel, degrading and soul destroying terminal disease. I urge you all to do at least one thing today to make a difference. Please don't let future sufferers be denied the right to better care, treatment and support.
As a result of the heavy use of asbestos in its shipyard and engineering industries, Barrow-in-Furness has the highest incidence of male mesotheliomas in England. After extensive consultation with local people, medical professionals, benefits' advisers, trade unionists and specialist solicitors, it was decided to set up a body to support local asbestos victims and their families. On February 27, the Barrow Asbestos-Related Disease Support (BARDS) group was launched with a press conference and balloon release outside St. Mary's Hospice Day Centre. With the support of the NHS, Barrow Trades Union Council and solicitors, BARDS, will, from April 2006, hold monthly sessions where patents can access a range of services including medical, nursing, complimentary therapy, benefits, legal advice and information.
The industrial heritage of Manchester, which included the asbestos operations of Turner & Newall Ltd. (T&N) at Trafford Park, has made asbestos disease a high priority for Mancunians. On February 27, a silent vigil of relatives holding photographs of those lost to asbestos disease attracted media attention; clips from this event were shown on Manchester TV throughout the day. The two hundred delegates who attended the public meeting which followed heard contributions from MP Tony Lloyd, a former T&N worker, Hugh Robertson from the Trades Union Congress, Oncologist Professor Thatcher and family members, including the relatives of electrician Michael Eason who died of mesothelioma at the age of 62, three months after being diagnosed. Wife Barbara said that Michael, a fit and healthy non-smoker, had been exposed to asbestos decades ago when he worked at a power station and chemical factory. She said:
I have lost my husband and can't fetch him back. I am carrying on and looking to the future and need to make everyone aware of this horrible disease: mesothelioma. People need to know that there are still 1.5 million premises in the UK which contain asbestos.
Lena Eason, Michael's mother, told the meeting that her family shared the pain of those who are still suffering and would campaign for increased funding for vital research.
Although mesothelioma killed more than 600 people in Merseyside between 1981 and 2000, there is widespread ignorance about the disease. To raise awareness and generate public and political support for the Mesothelioma Charter, the Merseyside Victims Asbestos Support Group (MVASG) organized a public meeting at Liverpool Town Hall on February 27. The well-attended meeting was opened by Councillor Alan Dean, the Lord Mayor of Liverpool; the Mayor of Wirral, Councillor Chris Meaden, whose father died of mesothelioma having worked at the Cammell Laird shipyard, was also in attendance. After presentations by the politicians, bereaved relatives and medical personnel including Chest Consultant Dr. Chris Warburton and Lung Cancer Nurse Maria Guerin, delegates were able to engage in one-to-one sessions with nurses, solicitors and other advisers. Commenting on the day, MVASG spokesperson John Flanagan said:
As a result of Action Mesothelioma Day, Sefton Council has tabled a motion to support the Mesothelioma Charter; Liverpool, Wirral and Warrington Councils are likely to follow suit. There is no doubt that this political commitment will translate into improved contributions and increased support for mesothelioma victims in Merseyside.
The volunteers of the Cheshire Asbestos Victims Support Group organized a meeting at Runcorn Town Hall to mark Action Mesothelioma Day. The Mayor of Halton Borough Council, Councillor Peter Lloyd-Jones, greeted delegates and unveiled a commemorative plaque which will be displayed in a respite caravan on the Welsh coast that the Group operates for clients and their families. Consultant Physician John Williams believes that the importance of the day should not be underestimated:
This was an important milestone for those who suffer with the condition and those who suffer as relatives 'on the sidelines' . Hopefully it (the day) will attract more funds into the research on this most difficult of cancers to treat. It will also serve as a reminder for those employers who shirked their responsibilities to their workforce never again must we delay before acting against potential dangers in the workplace. It needs to be repeated on an annual basis as the mesothelioma epidemic engulfs us.
Lung specialist and cancer nurses made presentations and mingled with delegates during the reception afterwards. Feedback from the asbestos sufferers attending the event was positive with many reporting that the opportunity to have informal discussions with healthcare professionals was invaluable.
A few days before Action Mesothelioma Day, a candle service of dedication was held in Sheffield to honor those lost to mesothelioma; through prayers, poems and reflections, bereaved family members and friends paid homage to loved ones. Paula Walker, spokesperson from the Sheffield and Rotherham Asbestos Group (SARAG), said that the range of activities undertaken in Sheffield demonstrated not only active support for the demands of the Mesothelioma Charter but also the deep and overwhelming need for an act of remembrance. At 11 a.m. on February 27, members of SARAG met outside Sheffield Town Hall for a balloon release in remembrance of South Yorkshire's mesothelioma victims. Mrs. Jo Share told a crowd of one hundred how this insidious disease, mesothelioma, took her mother's life and called for long overdue government action on mesothelioma now. As the Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Councillor Roger Davison, released the balloons, mesothelioma widow Mrs. Sheila Birds read out 53 names of people killed by mesothelioma. Sponsorship of the balloon release raised a staggering £1620 for medical research.
Chesterfield and Leicester
People whose lives have been affected by asbestos-related disease over the last twelve months were remembered in ceremonies held in Chesterfield and Leicester on the morning of Action Mesothelioma Day. A balloon launch by Chesterfield Mayor Keith Falconer in New Square attracted local media and ITV coverage; the public meeting which followed was attended by asbestos victims, family members and local dignitaries including MPs Natasha Eagle and Paul Holmes. The Lord Mayor of Leicester, Mary Draycott, played her part in the day's activities telling the crowd gathered outside Leicester Town Hall: If this balloon launch improves people's awareness, improves safety for people at work and improves the care of people suffering then it has worked. Liz Darlison, Nurse Consultant for the National Macmillan Mesothelioma Resource Center11 at Glenfield Hospital, and her staff attended the event in Leicester which was organized by Lynda Thornton, whose husband Roger died in July 2004, seven months after being diagnosed with mesothelioma. The Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team (DAST), coorganizers of both events, has started work on a book of tributes in which those affected can record their experiences. DAST spokesperson Joanne Carlin said: Families wanted to help by providing personal accounts in the hope that greater awareness can be created about the disease. The contribution from Carol Anthony, a mesothelioma widow from Derby, highlights the need for prompter diagnosis and treatment:
I therefore feel strongly that the lack of urgency at the hospital may have contributed to the rapid progress of Alan's tumour there needs to be a greater awareness that the disease can take aggressive forms and that time is of the essence. If prompter action had been taken, Alan could have had the biopsy a week earlier and the results of the biopsy could have been produced at least a week earlier.
On the afternoon of Action Mesothelioma Day, bereaved relatives and friends gathered in St. Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham for quiet reflection. Organizer Alida Coates said: Action Mesothelioma Day not only acts as a memorial to many thousands of people who have lost their lives to this disease but also highlights the problems which sufferers continue to face. Several people lit candles to commemorate those lost, including Karen Wright of Great Barr who lit a candle in memory of her father, Derek Hoult, who died of mesothelioma. The chance to speak with other mesothelioma-affected families provided a measure of solace to some of the relatives.
Consultant Chest Physician Mark Britton believes that Swindon is facing an epidemic which will see the number of annual deaths from mesothelioma rise by 50% within the next ten years. Much of the disease burden falls on men who worked in the Swindon railway workshops, indeed the nickname for this illness, the Swindon Disease, confirms the town's all too familiar acquaintance with this formerly rare cancer. The implications of his pleural thickening are not lost to Fred Large whose two brothers, both employed at the railway works, died from mesothelioma. Action Mesothelioma Day is, Fred said, about remembering the poor chaps who have passed away, those who are still suffering with it now and those who don't even know they have got it. To commemorate the day, the Swindon and South West Asbestos Group released balloons at the Mesothelioma Memorial Garden in Queen's Park. Group member Angela Whitehorn said: This is a national day and we are here to mark that. There is a lot of awareness of asbestos-related diseases in Swindon, but we hope this is extended to the whole country. My husband Doug Findlay worked on the railways and he died in 1997 after being ill for just 18 months. The Swindon Advertiser, a local newspaper which endorsed the Charter, reported overwhelming support from readers for mesothelioma to be made a national priority.
Trade Union and additional voluntary sector participation:
Bodies representing labor and the voluntary sector joined in the day of action. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) issued a range of information and promotional material for use by safety representatives to raise workplace awareness of asbestos products. Announcing the TUC's backing for the Mesothelioma Charter, Kevin Rowan, Northern TUC Regional Secretary, said:
Mesothelioma is the most virulent and violent asbestos-related illness, from diagnosis victims have a very short time to get any kind of help in terms of benefits or any advice relating to compensation claims. And this has to be managed during what is an incredibly traumatic and painful time for the victim and their family. The petition campaigns for much better, more effective and quicker support for mesothelioma sufferers and the TUC urges everyone in the region to sign up to it.
The GMB trade union, which has been active on asbestos for more than 20 years and played a pivotal role in the national campaign to ban asbestos, is familiar with the tragic effects of occupational asbestos exposure as many of its boilermaker members have contracted asbestos-related disease. John McClean, GMB National Health and Safety Officer, welcomed Action Mesothelioma Day saying:
For too long, sufferers from mesothelioma have been the hidden cancer victims in this country Part of this campaign is to ensure the management of the disease in its final stages including the use of new palliative drugs which help ease this suffering and ensuring that they are available to all by right and not subject to post code lottery.
In support of the objectives of the day, the Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association produced a leaflet Asbestos in the Home to advise DIY enthusiasts of the hidden dangers posed by the wide range of asbestos products formerly used in the construction and refurbishment of domestic properties.12 The BLF's 22 page booklet Mesothelioma contains information on the nature of the disease, treatment options, compensation and state benefits.13
Summing up the impact of Action Mesothelioma Day, Tony Whitston, Chair of the Forum of Asbestos Victims Support Groups, said:
One hundred years after Parliament was informed of the fatal consequences of occupational asbestos exposure, mesothelioma remains the 'forgotten cancer.' The outpouring of grass-root support which took place on Action Mesothelioma Day illustrated the strength of feeling generated by the continued marginalization and victimization of mesothelioma sufferers and their families. At events held up and down the country, people voiced their concerns about the lack of support services, medical care and financial benefits for those affected. The fact that some primary care trusts refuse to prescribe drugs such as Alimta to alleviate debilitating symptoms, while others do so routinely, was highlighted as was the attack by insurers and defendants on victims' rights. The (Asbestos) Forum applauds the work done on February 27 to highlight the formidable problems faced on a daily basis by sufferers and remains committed to working with victims groups, campaigners, the voluntary sector and politicians to improve the plight of those whose lives have been decimated by this killer disease.
Mr. B., a 61 year old mesothelioma sufferer from Scotland, views the events which took place on the day in a positive light:
The attention focused upon the plight of mesothelioma sufferers on the 27th of February was necessary and needs to be repeated each and every year. Mesothelioma is a cancer that afflicts, for the most part, older working class men whose condition does not tend to tug at the heartstrings. It would also be true to say that in today's society older people do not tend to receive the care they deserve in the healthcare lottery. The fact of the matter is that a condition which kills 33% more people than cervical cancer receives little or no funding for research because it is not seen as being 'sexy'.
The few gains that have been made in the struggle to obtain appropriate healthcare and more equitable treatment have tended to come from asbestos charities founded by mesothelioma victims and their relatives. Unlike many forms of cancer, the vast majority of us who suffer from this condition will not recover and our demise will end the political pressure we victims can apply. Whilst a small number of politicians and lawyers have manifested an interest in mesothelioma, the general public is largely unaware of the scale of the problem and the lack of resources given to medical research and financial justice for mesothelioma victims.
The greatest duty of any parliament is the protection of its citizens. That protection and duty of care was not afforded in the workplace but it is now possible to right a wrong by the provision of necessary resources. However, sufferers' needs won't be served in society unless there is an awareness of the condition and the inequalities of both healthcare and financial provision for its victims. The holding of Mesothelioma Days highlights the problem, sensitises the public and applies the kind of pressure upon Parliament that will ensure better healthcare and financial justice for the sufferers of this dreadful condition.
My wife was 51 when she died of mesothelioma. Gina had been a primary school teacher for thirty years. At her inquest the Coroner said that he considered that she had been exposed to asbestos in a school. Since Gina's death five years ago, I have carried out an extensive enquiry to determine where she had been exposed to asbestos. One common factor kept appearing: the vast majority of the twenty-five schools she had taught in contained asbestos. Out of the five independent schools, none had carried out an asbestos survey and only one had an asbestos management plan. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) state that a high proportion of our schools contain asbestos, and a significant minority have still not established complete control of asbestos in their premises. Despite this, a recent HSE and Department of Education campaign to dramatically reduce asbestos exposures in schools has been dropped because it would generate very limited results in contributing towards PSA14 targets.
In 1986, the Department of Education advised schools to identify asbestos by type, extent and location and then to manage it. However, 20 years later some schools are only now identifying their asbestos and, to comply with the new duty to manage asbestos regulations (2004), are implementing asbestos management plans.15 The walls in infant classrooms are covered in paintings and colorful mobiles hang from the ceilings, frequently affixed with drawing pins or staples. If the walls and ceilings are made of asbestos insulating board (AIB) then small amounts of asbestos fibers are released on a regular basis. Low level and repeated exposures to asbestos have a cumulative effect. To assess the risks from drawing pin insertion and removal into AIB, Occupational Hygienist Robin Howie carried out tests in 2003 which revealed that each insertion and removal releases over 6,000 fibers. In response, the HSE commissioned the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) to conduct a test; the results confirmed Howie's findings. They redesigned the test and, unsurprisingly, found that between 30-60 fibers are produced per pin insertion and removal. Using the lower figures and assuming that all the fibers would disperse instantly and evenly throughout the classroom, which does not happen, they calculated the teachers' and children's level of exposure. The HSE and the Department of Education informed the educational establishment that the risk was negligible. Mr Howie and I do not accept their findings.
Further tests carried out by Mr. Howie confirmed his original results; Howie showed that debris from the holes was readily broken up, releasing at least as many fibres again. From the HSL's second round of tests, it can be calculated that exposure levels are some 15,000 times greater than the HSE had previously concluded, although neither HSE nor HSL would openly acknowledge the fact. We requested peer review of all the tests. In February 2006, the Government's scientific advisory committee, WATCH, met and discussed the tests. They concluded that 6,000 fibers are released per pin and that worst case exposure levels for teachers are between 0.05f/ml and 1f/ml; these levels are on a par with those for Artex ceiling strippers who work in controlled conditions wearing protective overalls and breathing apparatus. Artex contains chrysotile (white) asbestos and AIB normally contains amosite (brown) asbestos, which is 100 times more dangerous. No assessment was made of the exposure levels of the children. WATCH concluded that the use of drawing pins with AIB is an avoidable risk and a clear message has to be sent to schools: Stop putting drawing pins and staples into AIB walls and ceilings.16
HSE mesothelioma statistics show that 73 primary and secondary school teachers died between 1991 and 2000. If teaching assistants, nursery nurses and lecturers are included, a total of 145 teachers died. The HSE statistics list the number of deaths categorized under 900 occupations. Amongst females, teachers have the sixth highest number of deaths. American mesothelioma statistics state Occupations associated with significantly elevated mesothelioma mortality include: plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters, mechanical engineers and elementary school teachers. There are no statistics that show how many children have been exposed to asbestos at school and have died as a result many years later. For more information about asbestos in schools and to share your experience about this issue, please visit the web-site: http://www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk
1 Kazan-Allen L. New Attacks on UK Asbestos Claimants. British Asbestos Newsletter. Issue 57. Winter 2005.
2 According to the 2004 article: Zurich in Fight over Asbestos, pleural plaque compensation was costing UK insurers £25 million a year with pay-outs averaging £5,000-£6,000; a contemporaneous actuarial report predicted up to 200,000 UK asbestos-related claims in the coming 30 years of which 75% would be for pleural plaques. More recently, research by the UK Institute of Actuaries estimated that a defendants' verdict by the Court of Appeal in the pleural plaque case could forestall 100,000 pleural plaque or pleural thickening cases which would save insurers up to £1.4 bn ($2.5 bn).
3 Kazan-Allen L. Overturn of UK Position on Pleural Plaques. http://www.ibas.btinternet.co.uk/Frames/f_lka_oturn_uk_pos_pleu_pl.htm
4 British Journal of Cancer (2005) 92, 587-293.
6 See: Mesothelioma Summit. http://www.ibas.btinternet.co.uk/Frames/f_lka_meso_summit_0305.htm
8 Mesothelioma Mortality in Great Britain: An Analysis by Geographical Area 1981-2000. http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/area8100.pdf
9 This estimate does not include the costs for palliative care, allied health professional services, social service and hospice costs.
14 PSA: Public Service Agreement
15 I have examined Department of Education and HSE asbestos files, both released under the Freedom of Information Act; I have also examined files in the National Archives. In a subsequent article, I will detail how our Government has failed to implement adequate measures to keep our teachers and children safe from the dangers of asbestos.
Compiled by Laurie Kazan-Allen