Asbestos: The lies that killed

Asbestos, now banned in the EU, kills up to 4,000 people a year in the UK alone. In this exclusive report, Ed Howker reveals how the industry hid the truth for decades and why the death toll will certainly continue to rise.

There are nearly one million documents on microfiche sitting in the office of the Manchester Metropolitan University Business School academic Geoffrey Tweedale. They expose a scandal that ranks among the biggest and costliest of our age: how the Lancashire manufacturing giant Turner & Newall (T&N), once the world's largest asbestos conglomerate, exposed millions to a lethal carcinogen in full knowledge of its dangers, using PR firms and politicians to hide a truth that it had secretly admitted to in 1961, namely that "the only really safe number of asbestos fibres in the works environment is nil".

Hidden in this massive archive are documents, revealed here for the first time, which tell the story of corporate recklessness that has led to the deaths of thousands of men and women in Britain who were once exposed to asbestos.

People living in the Spodden Valley area of Rochdale in the 1950s used to joke that they would get frost all year round. The local wood was nicknamed "the snow trees" and even the blackberries picked in late summer were covered with a fine white powder. But the "frost" was no joke - it was asbestos blown from extractor fans at the Turner & Newall factory in the heart of the valley.

Derek Philips never worked there, but for 19 years lived just yards from the site. He played bass in a band with T&N workers and recalls the factory as "the centre of the community". The guitars hang on the walls of his current home, a static caravan in the Pennine foothills where he waits to die of one of the asbestos-related diseases - meso thelioma, which appears decades after exposure to asbestos and which is killing more than 2,000 people every year in the UK.

His plight has been all too common in Rochdale. In the 1980s the New Statesman reported that on some roads near the factory every second household had lost a family member to asbestos diseases.

"I was diagnosed in October [2007]," says Philips. "A month later they drained three litres of fluid from my lungs. I couldn't even stand up properly. I've just no chance, have I? I didn't know about the risks."

In the coming months, how he was exposed to asbestos and who he was working for at that time will become vital issues as lawyers fight to win compensation for Derek.

The latest gambit of some insurers is to claim that their liabilities extend only to victims whose disease manifests (is triggered) when they are actually at work, not when they were negligently exposed, which can occur decades earlier. The union Unite is backing one of six test cases that have been presented on behalf of victims to Mr Justice Burton, who will rule in the high court this autumn. If he finds for the insurers, thousands of mesothelioma victims could find themselves without compensation for their suffering.

This long-running war between victims and insurers has an unlikely new player: Warren Buffett, the richest man in the world, who will watch the results of the "trigger issue" case with interest. Next year, National Indemnity Company, a division of the billionaire's Berkshire Hathaway, will take control of an office in the City of London that is unable to respond to telephone inquiries and has only one full-time employee. This skeleton of a business is called Equitas. It was worth $8.7bn in cash and securities when Buffett took it over in 2006. It had been created a decade earlier by Lloyd's of London to solve a multibillion-dollar crisis in insurance: the overextended liabilities of Lloyd's Names.

 

Who is liable?

 

By the 1980s, the burden of asbestos-related insurance claims underwritten by Lloyd's Names had become so great that the Names were threatened with bankruptcy. Equitas was established to manage the liabilities. Nearly half its reserves are dedicated to asbestos reinsurance claims predominantly from the United States. Some experts considered even Equitas's billions insufficient to cover the insurers. Buffett's deal augments the fund by a further $7bn to cover any shortfall and the Names will heave a collective sigh of relief when the transaction is approved formally by the high court next year.

So, what is in it for Buffett? When the Financial Times first interviewed him about the proposed deal in 2006, he admitted: "It will be long after I am dead before we know the final answers on how it all works out." Meanwhile, however, he will gain access to some of the most capable reinsurance analysts in the world.

Geoffrey Tweedale, author of Magic Mineral to Killer Dust, comments: "The deal will only be profitable if Berkshire Hathaway can limit their liabilities." In other words, Buffett would have to limit payments to the insurers that compensate victims. Alistair Darling's "bonfire of red tape" announced in the last Budget will help.

In July, the Treasury amended the Employers' Liability Regulations to revoke the requirement for businesses to keep insurance records for 40 years. But, in asbestos-related cases, decades can pass between exposure and the development of the disease. Without records, victims may be unable to establish who is liable. Tony Whitston, who runs the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, says: "It's a body blow to our groups who have to pick up the pieces when victims are unable to obtain justice."

The people of Rochdale have long experience of that.

Samuel Turner was a pioneer, spinning fireproof and corrosion-resistant textiles from Canadian asbestos on secondhand cotton machinery in the 1870s. From meagre beginnings, T&N grew to be the biggest asbestos conglomerate in the world, as well as a popular local factory.

Brian Penty worked at the site from 1963 until 1996: "There was a bowling green and Christmas parties for the kids," he explains. "It was a family thing. People never really took on board what was being said about asbestos."

Beneath the rosy tale of northern endeavour lurked a darker story. As early as 1898, government factory inspectors were warning that asbestos "easily demonstrated danger to the health of the workers". The T&N files first refer to asbestos cancer in Rochdale in the 1930s.

By 1947, the national factory inspector's report emphasised the incidence of lung cancer among asbestos workers but, astonishingly, no detailed research was undertaken by the government. Only in 1955 did Richard Doll, then a junior academic (and later famous for establishing the connection between tobacco-smoking and cancer), complete an epidemiological study in Rochdale which established the link between asbestos and cancer. He had been approached by T&N but the company initially refused to allow him to publish the findings. Later T&N persuaded its own scientist, Dr John Knox, to draft a paper discrediting Doll's work. Knox encouraged academic scepticism about asbestos diseases but clearly knew there was a problem. He regularly X-rayed employees and when the results showed them developing signs of disease moved them to less dusty jobs. They were not told why.

The signed witness statement of a worker who later died states: "They did not say in 1974 that I had asbestosis but I expect there was something on my X-ray which made them think it was time I came out."

And Brian Penty remembers a so-called "blood pressure survey" in 1982: "They actually drew blood. A couple of years later I was at my GP's surgery - he'd been sent the results. Apparently they were testing for asbestos in my bloodstream."

In public, T&N strove to be portrayed as a responsible employer. In 1944, a manager of the plant wrote to factory inspectors: "In a number of cases we make ex-gratia payments in addition to the statutory compensation. Where an employee has no standing for some technicality we pay compensation, as it appears desirable to deal with the problem on broad lines, and not to rely on some legal point in our favour."

Yet, when the first official asbestosis victim, Nellie Kershaw, died in 1924, the firm wrangled about paying compensation to her bereaved family. Finally they decided not even to contribute towards funeral expenses since, as one company manager warned, it "would create a precedent and admit responsibility". She was buried in an unmarked grave.

 

The T&N archives are full of death certificates of former employees, placed with internal correspondence never disclosed to grieving families. The official cause of death attributed to Edna Penham, a 64-year-old asbestos stripper at T&N, for example, was peritonitis. The company's personnel manager noted that his records showed she was "40 per cent disabled due to asbestosis", though there was no reference to this on her death certificate. It appears the coroner did not know. There was no inquest.

 

Keeping quiet

 

Eventually T&N employed the insurance giant Commercial Union to administer a fund for diseased employees. Geoffrey Tweedale found examples of former employees being placed under surveillance by the firm - desperate not to be held liable. Company policy appeared to be to mislead coroners' inquests, pay compensation only if forced and avoid payouts that might create precedents.

In 1964, T&N solicitors warned the directors: "We have, over the years, been able to talk our way out of claims but we have always recognised that at some stage solicitors of experience . . . would, with the advance in medical knowledge and the development of the law . . . recognise there is no real defence to these claims and take us to trial."

The company found government representatives only too pliant. One medical adviser is recorded as advising T&N to keep quiet about the cancer dangers of their product. In correspondence between two directors of the plant, the opinion of Professor Archie Cochrane, director of epidemiology at the Medical Research Council, was noted: "In tackling a problem of this nature [mesothelioma] one should either be completely frank with everyone or maintain complete secrecy - it is the latter that he feels is best at the moment."

In 1968, T&N circulated a confidential five-point plan entitled "Putting the Case for Asbestos". Drafted by the international PR firm Hill & Knowlton and designed to enable staff to field questions about asbestos cancer, it began, in capital letters: "Never be the first to raise the health question."

When government departments did raise questions about the safety of asbestos, the Board of Trade intervened, arguing that any suggestion that asbestos presented a danger would damage British jobs. So, the sale of asbestos products continued to grow in the UK throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

T&N also relied on the assistance of Cyril Smith, the larger-than-life Rochdale MP and parliamentary pioneer of the Saturday-night television chat-show sofa. During the summer recess of 1981, Smith wrote to Sydney Marks, the head of personnel, informing him that the House would debate EEC regulations on asbestos in the next parliamentary session.

The letter asks simply: "Could you please, within the next eight weeks, let me have the speech you would like to make (were you able to!), in that debate?"

T&N's draft is almost identical to the speech delivered by the Rochdale MP, stressing the need for less regulation and arguing that substitutes for asbestos should be approached "with caution". "The public at large are not at risk," said Smith. "It is necessary to say that time and time again."

Writing in the local paper, he claimed to have "worked very hard on the speech and have spent hours, both in reading and in being at the works, trying to master the facts about safety in asbestos".

A year later he declared 1,300 shares in the company. Six months after that J B Heron, the chairman of T&N, wrote to Smith again, thanking him for his assistance with the Commons select committee meetings which followed Alice, a Fight for Life, the Yorkshire Television documentary that highlighted the plight of T&N employees.

When last month the New Statesman approached Smith for a comment, he said: "If you've got the documents, it is all true."

 

Some may receive nothing

 

By 1999, the game was up for T&N when the European Union banned the import and production of asbestos throughout the EU. But with the factory's demise came the greatest in justice of all. In the UK, neither T&N nor its insurers faced substantial product liability claims or decontamination costs. Instead, the company was purchased by Federal-Mogul, a US company which later declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy - a status that ring-fenced its compensation liabilities.

With the company protected from its creditors, a UK-based T&N asbestos compensation scheme of just £100m was established by Federal-Mogul's UK administrators.

Those who, like Derek Philips, may have been victims of environmental exposure at T&N's factories may end up receiving little or nothing.

"The hardest thing," says David Cass, a solicitor specialising in compensation for mesothelioma victims, "is having to tell people who walk into my office, 'I won't get you an apology.'"

Who is left to provide one? T&N is now a shell. The civil servants and politicians who failed to regulate the industry are no longer in post; the insurers who took on the liabilities are long retired. They cannot account for their decisions now. But we will live, and many will die, with the consequences.

 

 

 

Asbestos: the killer facts

 

 

 

1

asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related death in the UK

4,000

number of asbestos-related deaths in the UK in 2005

79

number of teachers who died from mesothelioma between 1991 and 2000

13,000

schools in Britain may have been built using asbestos materials

60

number of years after exposure to fibres it may take for an asbestos-related disease to manifest itself

25%

of victims of mesothelioma work in the building or maintenance industry

2.2 million

tonnes of asbestos were mined worldwide in 2005

Research: Adam Lewitt

 

     

    This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food

    PAUL KOOIMAN/GALLERY STOCK
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    Chill out

    Stress is not as destructive as is often assumed: a little bit of it may even be good for us.

    It creeps up on you as soon as the alarm clock rings. Fingers reflexively unlock your phone. Emails bound in with a jolly ping: things you should have done last week; pointless meeting requests; bills to pay.

    Over a hurried breakfast you scan the headlines: wall-to-wall misery. On the train you turn to social media for relief. ­Gillian is funnier than you. Alex got promoted again. Laura’s sunning herself in Thailand. You’re here, packed in, surrounded but alone, rattling your way towards another overstretched day.

    Stress: we know what it feels like, we can smell it on others, we complain about it most days. And we’re living through an epidemic of it. The government’s Health and Safety Executive estimates that stress cost the economy nearly ten million working days last year. Some 43 per cent of all sick days were attributed to stress. In the US, a large survey conducted by the National Public Radio network in 2014 showed that nearly one in two people reported a major stress event at some point in the previous 12 months. The year before that, American doctors wrote 76 million unique prescriptions for the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Ativan. With the media running stories about stress-induced heart disease, strokes, obesity, depression, ulcers and cancer, it’s hard not to conclude that stress kills.

    But consider this: just a century ago, nobody got stressed. They suffered with their nerves, got a touch of the vapours; they worried; but they were never stressed. In fact, our current view of stress – what it is, what it feels like, and when it is harmful – evolved surprisingly recently. And research shows that the way we think about stress has a profound influence on how it affects us.

    Prolonged, uncontrollable stress – particularly if suffered in childhood – can be profoundly corrosive and debilitating. But what of the familiar stresses of day-to-day life? Are they actually damaging you? Might the belief that stress is harmful be self-fulfilling? And what would a stress-free life look like? Instead of turning in on ourselves and doing battle with our personal stress demons, might we be able to put their diabolic energy to good use?

    If we pause for a moment from our daily hustle we would see that many of us are incurably hooked on stress. We thrive on it, getting a kick out of surviving the high-stakes presentation, meeting the deadline and overcoming our fears and prejudices. Watching a thriller, we are on the edge of our seat, pulses racing. Sports, on the field or on television, can propel us into “fight or flight” mode. Humanity’s fascination with gambling hinges on stress.

    If the most skilled physiologists in the world could peer beneath the skin of a thrill-seeker on a roller coaster and an out-of-his-depth job interview candidate, they would struggle to tell them apart. Deep in the brain, they would see a structure called the hypothalamus fired up. With each lurch of the ride or disarming question asked, the hypothalamus signals to the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney. The adrenals then squirt a shot of adrenalin into the bloodstream. In the background, the hypothalamus prods the pituitary gland, which passes a different message on to the adrenal gland. This increases production of cortisol, the textbook “stress hormone”. Flipping these biological switches triggers the familiar bodily symptoms of stress: a pounding heart, raised blood pressure, dilated pupils, arrested digestion and a damped-down immune system. In both cases, the biological stress response would look very similar.

    Even if we could eliminate stress entirely, or smother it with pharmaceuticals, we wouldn’t want to. To muzzle the stress response is to silence the good as well as the bad. At best, stress can motivate us to achieve more and fix the sources of our stress. Boredom is stressful in its own way: observe a caged lion, or an understimulated teenager. In fact, as the animal psychologist Françoise Wemelsfelder told New Scientist recently, boredom may exist to spur us back into activity. This half-forgotten idea, that some degree of stress can inspire and elevate, is common sense. It also has deep roots in the earliest scientific study of stress and stress responses.

    ***

    At the beginning of the 20th century, two American psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, wanted to know how stressing out lab mice affected their learning. They set the rodents navigational challenges and punished wrong turns by administering small electric shocks to the feet. In their terminology, larger electric currents caused greater “arousal”.

    They spotted some consistent trends. When they gave mice an easy task (choosing between a black or a white tunnel) the relationship between the strength of the shock and the speed of learning was simple. The greater the stressor, the quicker the mice learned to pick the right tunnel.

    When the challenge was subtler (differentiating between grey tunnels), the response was less straightforward. Weak shocks provided little impetus to learn, but as the zaps got stronger, the mice gradually upped their game. They focused on the task and remembered the consequences of wrong choices. Yet, at a certain point, the high stress levels that helped with the easy task became counterproductive. Overwhelmed, the mice skittered around at random, trying in vain to escape.

    On a graph, the relationship between stress and performance on onerous tasks traces an inverted U shape. Some degree of stress helps, but there is a clear tipping point, beyond which stress becomes paralysing. The findings became known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.

    This was all very well for mice, but could it be applied to human beings? According to the Canadian-Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye, the “father of stress”, it could. Selye was the first person to describe the key glands, hormones and nerves of the biological stress response during the 1930s and 1940s, and also one of the first to apply the word “stress” to human biology.

    For Selye, “stress” described an all-purpose response the body had to any demand placed upon it. When stress is on the upswing of Yerkes and Dodson’s inverted-U performance curve, Selye calls it “eustress”. This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.

    Despite this knowledge, stress has a terrible public image today, often synonymous with distress. While some wear their stress as a badge of honour (“I’m important enough to be stressed”), deep down even the most gung-ho City workers probably stress about their stress. And in painting stress as a beast, we grant it more destructive power.

    When did we come to view stress as the universal enemy? Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has sifted through a huge archive of historical tobacco industry documents. In a 2011 paper, he revealed that a large proportion of stress research during the second half of the 20th century was funded, steered and manipulated by this most unexpected of benefactors. Indeed, from the late 1950s, Hans Selye received hundreds of thousands of tobacco-stained dollars. He also allowed industry lawyers to vet his research and appeared in several pro-tobacco propaganda films.

    “They put a massive, massive amount of money into it,” Petticrew told me.

    Why were tobacco manufacturers so interested in stress? First, cigarettes were marketed as a stress reliever. “To anxiety . . . I bring relief,” reads a 1930s advertisement for Lucky Strike. So if research could help them pin poor mental and physical health to stress, this sort of message would carry more weight. (Incidentally, the still widespread belief that smoking reduces anxiety appears to be wrong.)

    Later, as evidence grew that smoking caused cancer and heart disease, the tobacco industry wanted to prove that stress was an equally significant risk factor. They used the authority of Selye and several other leading researchers as a smokescreen. “Doubt is our product,” read a top industry executive’s 1969 memo. And so doubt they sowed, arguing repeatedly that stress was a major cause of disease. Those seeking to control tobacco were wrong, they claimed.

    It worked: the industry convinced the general public of the evils of stress and diverted public health research for at least a decade. With tobacco regulation and compensation payouts postponed, the profits kept rolling in.

    Should we doubt the veracity and neutrality of all the foundational research into stress as a disease? “I wouldn’t want to argue that stress doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t bad for your health and certainly your mental health,” Petticrew says. “But you can’t ignore this story.”

    He goes on to describe concrete “findings” that industry-funded researchers got wrong. Prominent among these was a link between coronary disease and people displaying so-called Type A personality traits: competitiveness, ambition, anxiety. Such temperamentally “stressed” people were especially likely to suffer heart attacks and, not coincidentally, to smoke. Then the association faded away. “Aside from the scientific weaknesses, which are many, Type A is a cultural artefact to some extent constructed by the tobacco lobby,” Petticrew says. And yet, despite its fragile foundations, the Type A myth persists today.

    The long shadow cast by decades of one-sided, propaganda-laced stress research has led many people to believe that stress is a direct cause of heart attacks. But the British Heart Foundation’s website states, “There is no evidence to suggest that stress causes coronary heart disease or heart attacks.” Nor does it cause stomach ulcers: usually it is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori which does that.

    The tobacco-funded researchers didn’t get it all wrong. Stress does have clear causal links to some diseases, particularly mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictive behaviour. High stress levels appear to be a general risk factor for early death, among middle-aged men in particular. Moreover, we all know how unpleasant stress can be. From insomnia to binge eating and boozing, we respond to stress with all sorts of counterproductive and antisocial behaviours. And that is partly why the tone of messages we hear about stress matters so much. Human beings are inherently suggestible and particularly vulnerable to warning messages about our health, especially when those messages seem to be backed by science.

    ***

    With mice in a cage, you can measure the tipping point – the precise current of the electric shock – where good stress becomes bad. But we don’t need the lurking menace of a lion in the long grass to activate our stress response. We can do it perfectly well for ourselves. All it takes is a negative thought, the memory of an insult, or a vague feeling of unease.

    We can think our way into stress. And, as recent evidence shows, if we believe stress is going to hurt us, it is more likely to hurt us. This is one message emerging from the Whitehall II project, a long-term study of 10,000 UK government civil servants, set up in 1985 to study the social, economic and personal determinants of health and disease. A 2013 analysis of Whitehall II data concluded that people who believe stress adversely affects their health are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack, irrespective of their stress levels.

    There is a flipside to this gloomy news. If our thoughts and beliefs can switch on a damaging stress response, can they also switch it off? Could the power of suggestion be a partial vaccination in the battle against the stress epidemic?

    This is the contention of Alia Crum, a psychology professor at Stanford University and a flagbearer for the science of mindset manipulations. In 2007 she showed that if hotel chambermaids come to think of their work as exercise, they lose weight and their blood pressure falls, apparently without them working any harder. More recently, she described how UBS bankers who were shown videos about the life-enhancing effects of stress – how it can sharpen attention, boost cognition and force fresh perspectives – reported being more productive, focused and collaborative, and less afflicted by depression and anxiety.

    The inescapable conclusion is this: the human mind is a powerful gatekeeper to the stress response. But we have to tread carefully here. UBS employees may have the freedom to choose a less stressful life, and find opportunity to reshape their stress mindsets. What about those whose stress is delivered early and compounded by a lifetime of disadvantage and adversity? Perhaps this is where the story of familiar, workaday stress and the grinding strain of social injustice come together. Stress gets under our skin only when we can’t see the end or spot the fix. So what, other than using Crum’s mindset interventions, can we do to restore the critical feeling of empowerment?

    Emily Ansell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale, says that reaching out a kindly hand to your fellow human beings can be surprisingly helpful. In a study published last year, Ansell and colleagues gave a group of 77 people a diary-like smartphone app. They asked the subjects to record all the stressful incidents they encountered, and any minor acts of kindness they performed, during a 14-day period. The data shows that gestures such as holding doors for strangers and helping elderly people across the road buffer the effects of stress and make you feel more optimistic.

    Positive interactions deliver a reward at the neurological level. They restore a sense of control and show that meaningful relationships are possible. Moreover, helpers often get more psychological and health benefits than those on the receiving end of  that help.

    How do we encourage prosocial behaviour throughout society, particularly at the margins? According to Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, lower-class people in America often “have less and give more”. They are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than their upper-class counterparts. It’s possible that this tendency to reach out and muck in is a direct response to a life of chronic stress. In response to Piff’s theory, Michael Poulin, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, suggests: “We should perhaps really focus on encouraging prosocial behaviour among the well-off, ­potentially leading to benefits both for them – in terms of stress – and for the disadvantaged, who would presumably benefit from their generosity.”

    This article is published simultaneously in the Long + Short, the free online magazine of ideas published by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. thelongandshort.org

    This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster