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

    JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
    Show Hide image

    Fitter, dumber, more productive

    How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

    When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

    With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

    The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

    A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

    The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

    So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

    ***

    The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

    The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

    The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

    It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

    The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

    Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

    It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

    And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

    ***

     

    The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

    The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

    By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

    Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

    The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

    Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

    ***

    It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

    Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

    As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

    There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

    In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

    Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

    By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

    This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge