Since the start of the Industrial Revolution when samples of asbestos were first displayed in London in 1862, across three different centuries innocent British lives continue to be devasted by the use of asbestos. In June 2018, British asbestos victims attended the annual Parliamentary Asbestos Seminar in Westminster to each tell their story of coming to terms with the reality of mesothelioma and asbestos-related disease today.
The adverse health effects of asbestos were first recorded in 1899, and the first asbestos-related death recorded in 1906. More than 150 years later, men and women are still being told by their doctors that their breathing problems or chest pains are symptoms of asbestosis or the incurable mesothelioma cancer. There were 2,595 mesothelioma deaths in 2016, up by nearly 50 in 2015, according to latest available figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
The Seminar was held by the Asbestos Sub-Committee of the All-party Group on Occupational Health and Safety. It gave the MPs present a chance to hear, first-hand, the latest challenges faced by UK asbestos cancer sufferers as well as issues surrounding the continuing global use of the deadly fibre insulation.
Many campaigners attended from across the country, particularly the historical industrial regions of northern England and Scotland where asbestos was first used in the manufacture of yarn, then quickly taken up by ship building, construction and vehicle assembly. Asbestos victim support groups, charities, trade unions and NGOs were from County Durham, South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Kent, Glasgow, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leicester, Rochdale, Cambridge and London.
Asbestos used n all almost every aspect of British working and domestic life
It was in 1871 that the Patent Asbestos Manufacturing Company was established in Glasgow, which turned the Clydebank area into a major asbestos industry centre over the following decades. Serious use of asbestos began in the years following WW2 when annual asbestos imports rose from 95,000 tons in the early 1940s to more than 170,000 tons by the 1960s. By the early 1970s, around 183,000 tons of asbestos was arriving in the country to be used in upward of 300 products in all almost every aspect of British working and domestic life, from building factories and school classrooms to domestic oven gloves and car brake pads.
According to the HSE records, by the end of the 1960s, more than 120 male workers were fatal victims of mesothelioma each year, which had doubled by the mid 1970s to more than 250. The figure had doubled again to above 530 by the mid-1980s when the first UK asbestos ban on the most toxic blue and brown asbestos fibre types was introduced. However, the steep upward curve continued through the end of 1999 – when white asbestos was finally banned – with over 1,380 fatalities. Just over a decade into the 21st century and the number of annual deaths had reached more than 2,100. Ten years on, and the victim toll is tipping 2,600 with analysts projecting higher numbers continuing up to 2025 and into the middle of the century.
“Millions of tons of asbestos still in place in workplaces across the country”
The two-hour session at the Parliamentary seminar highlighted many asbestos issues, including the challenges still faced by UK asbestos cancer sufferers and a progress update on British mesothelioma research. Attention was also drawn to asbestos materials existing at brownfield sites and the campaign by the Asbestos in Schools Group.
Chair of the Asbestos Sub-Committee, Jo Stevens, MP for Cardiff Central said that the seminar underlined that asbestos was “still a huge problem out there” with “millions of tons of asbestos still in place in workplaces across the country”. Stevens, who was Shadow Secretary of State for Wales between 2016-17, added that it “very clear” that there was also a “huge energy” to ensure that “victims are supported” and asbestos eradicated both in the UK and other parts of the world.
To this end, French asbestos victims and campaigners met with colleagues from Brazil, Spain, the UK and Belgium just a few days later. Information was shared, and legal and political strategies planned for addressing the continuing challenges posed by “asbestos fibres in human lungs”, “asbestos products in public buildings” and “asbestos waste at official and illegal dumpsites”.
The use of asbestos is currently banned in 55 countries around the world and the most recent available data shows that global asbestos production fell by more than 30 per cent between 2012 and 2015. However, key producers in Russia and Kazakhstan remain determined to maintain production and ignore the considerable health risk to workers and family members.