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

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    No peace after progress

    How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

    Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

    Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

    The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

    Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

    Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

    There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

    The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

    And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

    The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

    ***

    A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

    Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
    they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

    Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

    Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

    Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

    It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

    The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

    Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

    Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

    This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain