The Female Face of Britain's Asbestos Catastrophe
Considering the colossal levels of asbestos exposure experienced by British workers, consumers, bystanders and community members during the 20th century, there can be no doubt that the death toll from asbestos-related diseases has been massive;1 one occupational hygienist has estimated that the country's cumulative asbestos death toll could well exceed 800,000. It is unfortunately true, however, that no one knows how many lives have been lost due to Britain's love affair with asbestos; how many families have been torn asunder by avoidable asbestos-related deaths or how many children's lives have been decimated by the early loss of a parent or the trauma of a beloved grandparent's premature death.
Nowadays, Britain has the unwelcome distinction of having the world's highest mortality rate from the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma. Historically, male mesothelioma deaths have dominated the statistics with, at times, six times as many male as female fatalities. Considering the lower death rate amongst British women, it is of interest to note that so many of the landmark cases through which the national asbestos reality has been revealed relate to the tragic experiences of female victims. In factories and schools, at home and at work, British women have paid with their lives for the asbestos industry's profits.
Nellie Kershaw – The First Named Victim of Asbestos Disease, 1924
Nellie Kershaw was a factory worker in asbestos textile mills in Rochdale, an industrial town near Manchester, from 1903, when she left school aged 12, until 1922 when she became too sick to work. On July 22, 1922 Nellie was issued a National Health Insurance certificate of ill health which identified her condition as “asbestos poisoning.” As this was an occupationally-related illness, she was unable to qualify for sickness benefit from the Newbold Approved Society, a society to which she had contributed. Despite increasingly plaintive requests from her and her husband, her employer – Turner Brothers Asbestos Company (TBA) – repeatedly refused to assist the couple and she died in poverty on March 24, 1924 leaving behind a grieving widower and young son. TBA's determination to repudiate liability for Nellie's asbestos-related disease, its determination to contest the accuracy of her diagnosis and its use of legal and medical experts to fight its corner were indicative of strategies that would be relied upon by British asbestos defendants for decades to come.
This case was a rarity in that the patient had been medically diagnosed during life to be suffering from an asbestos-related disease, a fact confirmed by a post-mortem examination conducted at the coroner's request. The findings from a subsequent microscopic examination of the lungs, also ordered by the coroner, were presented at the 1924 coroner's inquest which issued a certificate stating the cause of death was “fibrosis of the lungs due to the inhalation of mineral particles.” Nellie's death was the first to be officially recognized as being due to “pulmonary asbestosis,”2 indeed the nomenclature “asbestosis” was used by Dr. W. E. Cooke in his 1924 report of her case to the British Medical Journal.3
Nora Dockerty –The First Successful British Asbestos Claimant, 1952
Like Nellie Kershaw, Nora Dockerty (née Kelly) worked for TBA, starting at the Rochdale asbestos factory after leaving school aged 15 in 1933. When her contract of employment was terminated due to illness in November 1948, she had given thirteen and a half years of service initially as a machine assistant in TBA's Carding and Spinning Department. At her death in 1950, Nora was only 31 years old, two years younger than Nellie Kershaw had been when she died.4 Whereas Mr Kershaw survived Nellie and was able to look after their daughter, Nora's husband had pre-deceased her leaving her father to pursue TBA for compensation on his granddaughter's behalf. An autopsy of lung tissue conducted by Dr Manning at the Rochdale Mortuary enabled the coroner to confirm the cause of death as “Generalised Tuberculosis accelerated by the presence of Asbestosis” on February 23, 1950. A subsequent report by the Pneumoconiosis Medical Panel in Manchester concluded that the cause of death was “Pneumoconiosis (Asbestosis) accompanied by Tuberculosis”.
The coroner's verdict provided the impetus for the Kelly family to begin legal proceedings. Having spoken to an official at the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, Mr Kelly, Nora's father, began the process of gathering the evidence which would be needed if a lawsuit was to succeed. The information collected was passed to the union which then instructed the law firm of Messrs John Whittle, Robinson & Bailey to act for the family. After protracted negotiations and extensive legal jostling, the case was finally settled in January 1952 when Turner & Newall, TBA's parent company, paid the sum of £375 with costs. Commenting on the significance of the case brought for the death of Nora Dockerty, Professor Nick Wikeley wrote: “The story of Kelly v. Turner & Newall Ltd represents a microcosm of the balance struck in the asbestos industry between workers' health and company profitability: between 1931 and 1948, £87,938 was paid out to 140 asbestosis victims under the Asbestosis Scheme; in the same period, nearly £7 million was distributed to shareholders.”5
Nancy Tait – Founder of the World's First Asbestos Victims' Group, 1978
Unlike the other ladies named in this article, Nancy Tait did not die of an asbestos-related disease. She was, nonetheless, a victim as her husband Bill died of pleural mesothelioma in 1968. As a telephone engineer, Bill had been exposed to asbestos at work on a routine basis, a fact that his employer continued to deny. It was four years after Bill's death that Nancy finally forced the authorities to admit liability for his disease; the paltry offer they made to settle the claim, £4,000, was refused. The tragedy of her husband's early death was the event which dominated the rest of Nancy's life, a life spent helping others to overcome the medical, legal and social barriers which prevented victims from accessing the treatment they needed and the compensation they deserved. That she was successful at helping others to navigate government bureaucracy and extract compensation from negligent employers at a time when the cards were very clearly stacked against working people is testament to her tremendous commitment, persistence, phenomenal memory and civil service training.
The Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases (SPAID) that Nancy established in 1978 was the first group anywhere in the world to lobby for the needs of asbestos victims. SPAID was a registered charity which offered free advice and support to victims and family members. Nancy did not keep office hours or “do weekends.” She was available on the phone and in person to those in need when they needed her. Widows facing the daunting prospect of a coroner's inquest were comforted by the presence of this white-haired, innocuous looking English lady with sensible shoes and a matronly demeanour. That demeanour belied a mind like a steel trap – woe betides any official, expert or witness who underestimated her. It was common for Nancy to find herself in a coroner's court pitted against the best experts the employers' money could buy. She confronted them in formal settings, at parliamentary hearings, occupational health conferences and inquest proceedings. Her opponents tried to dismiss her as an amateur and attempts were made to discredit her, all of which failed. Nancy died on February 13, 2009, at age 89, having devoted the 41 years of her life since Bill's death to helping others. She left a legacy of compassion and achievement of which anyone would be proud.
Alice Jefferson –The Focus of Landmark TV Documentary, 1982
At age 17, Alice Jefferson (born 1935) went to work at the Cape Asbestos factory in Acre Mill, Yorkshire; the three months she spent working in clouds of asbestos dust were all that were needed to cause the mesothelioma which took her life three decades later. Like Nellie Kershaw and Nora Dockerty she died way before her time leaving behind her son Paul 15 and daughter Patsy 5, her husband and grieving family members. In 1982 Alice was the focus of a landmark documentary that was broadcast on prime time mainstream TV; it was watched by nearly 6 million viewers. Explaining the contribution made by Alice to the program, industrial historian Geoffrey Tweedale wrote:
“much of the documentary's impact was due to its unrelenting focus on Alice, who demonstrated enormous fortitude in the face of a pitiless disease. Her physician described her as a 'typical West Yorkshire lass. She's tough and realistic and you can't kid this lady. This lady knows exactly what the score is.' Alice's reaction was to fight, especially for her husband and young son and daughter. As she explained: 'You can't give in, can you? You owe it to yourself and your family to keep fighting, don't you. And when you get knocked down, get up and stand there again…'”6
The ninety minute program, entitled Alice – A Fight for Life, marked a watershed in Britain's attitude to asbestos and led to questions being asked in Parliament and action being taken; ten days after Alice was screened, the government reduced the legal limit for occupational asbestos exposures. The adverse publicity generated by the program impacted on British asbestos companies with Turner & Newall, the country's “asbestos giant,” losing £60 million in its share value. All of this came too late for Alice; she died a month after filming ended and four months before the documentary was broadcast.
June Hancock – The First Successful Environmental Claimant, 1995
June Hancock (born 1936) grew up in the shadow of an asbestos factory in the town of Armley, West Yorkshire. After losing her mother Maie Gelder to mesothelioma in 1982, June came face to face with the nightmare once more when she too was diagnosed with mesothelioma (1993). Neither she nor her mother had worked with asbestos.7June knew how the disease would progress; she knew that everyday tasks would become increasingly arduous and simple pleasures unobtainable; she chose to fight back. Her opponent, J. W. Roberts Ltd. (JWR), had been operating from the Armley site since 1895. In 1920, it had become a subsidiary of Turner & Newall (T&N) Limited. So, by suing JWR, June was in reality suing T&N. In 1995, T&N's 40,000 employees generated a £2 billion turnover at two hundred installations in twenty-four countries; the company wasn't about to give in easily. Undaunted, June instructed a solicitor shortly after she was diagnosed; a writ was issued on September 5, 1994.
It was a test case; never before had anyone succeeded in getting compensation for environmental asbestos exposure from an English company. June's case was combined with that of Evelyn Margereson, the widow of a mesothelioma victim who had, like June, lived near the Roberts' textile factory. In the sixty-six page ruling handed down on October 27, 1995, Justice Holland awarded both claimants full compensation paying a “warm tribute to her (June's) dignity and courage.” The appeal lodged by the defendants was dismissed on April 2, 1996 and permission to appeal to the House of Lords was refused. And so it ended: June Hancock received £65,000, Evelyn Margereson £50,000. Not much for two lives. But what a victory – June, her family and her legal team were jubilant. June's words were quoted nationally: “It proves however small you are you can fight and however big you can lose.” After the verdict, other mesothelioma victims from Armley and Washington, the location of another T&N subsidiary, received out-of-court settlements. June was right; her fight had made it “easier for others.” June was 61 years old when she died on July 19, 1997, her daughter Kimberley and sons Russell and Tommy by her side. Considering that her dad lived till he was 86, there is no way of knowing how many years were stolen from her by the asbestos contagion permeating the air, water and streets of Armley.
Gina Lees – A Symbol of Britain's Third Wave of Asbestos Deaths, 2000
Studies of the global impact of asbestos have identified three waves of deaths: the first was amongst those people who worked directly with asbestos such as Nellie Kershaw, Nora Dockerty and Alice Jefferson, the second affected workers like Bill Tait who used asbestos products whilst the third is associated with exposure to asbestos in situ such as that experienced by plumbers, electricians, carpenters and refurbishment workers.8 In 2000, at age 51, Gina Lees died of asbestos cancer, a mere three months after her condition had been diagnosed. Gina had never worked with asbestos, nor lived near an asbestos factory; none of her relatives had worked in an industrial setting where they were exposed to asbestos. When she was diagnosed with the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma, neither she nor her husband could comprehend how a primary schoolteacher could contract an industrial disease. So began a personal quest by her husband Michael for an explanation.
As Michael pored through government records, witness statements and archival material, he put together a dossier which revealed appalling behaviour by successive governments determined to ignore the deadly problem posed by asbestos in schools. Michael discovered that most of the 25 schools in which Gina had worked during her teaching career contained asbestos products which were often in a damaged and dangerous condition, a fact which was unknown to the schools' head teachers, governors and staff. When Michael raised his concerns with the authorities, he was “dismayed” by their indifference. During the course of his research activities, Michael made contact with asbestos victims, scientific experts, trade unionists and public health campaigners, as a result of which a network to tackle the “national scandal” of asbestos in UK schools was born. Gina Lees was not the first schoolteacher to die of hazardous workplace exposure and she won't be the last but her case was the catalyst for the unprecedented mobilization on asbestos in schools which has taken place in recent years.
Debbie Brewer – 21st Century Warrior, 2012
Debbie Brewer, born in 1959, was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in November 2006. Her asbestos exposure was a result of her father's employment from 1963 to 1966 in Plymouth; as a lagger he removed asbestos insulation from pipework for the Ministry of Defence (MoD). He returned home at the end of the day with asbestos on his work clothes. He died of lung cancer in August 2006, three months before his daughter's cancer was diagnosed. Debbie's case, one of the first to hold the MoD to account for its negligence, was settled at the end of 2007 with the payment of a six figure sum. A single mother of three children, the youngest of whom was ten years old when she was diagnosed, Debbie was determined to explore all the options, including alternative therapies, that could prolong her life. Having been in touch with mesothelioma sufferer Anthony Webb and his wife Patricia, Debbie decided to travel to Frankfurt for chemoembolization, a course of action she did not disclose at the time to her Plymouth oncologist who had warned her of “internet sharks.” After three treatments in Germany, each of which cost €4,000, a CT scan showed a significant reduction in the size of her tumour. It was at that point that Debbie informed her oncologist of the treatment she had had. Although surprised by the apparent efficacy of this alternative therapy, she reports, he was responsive to the evidence in front of his eyes.
Debbie, a natural communicator, had been on TV and in newspapers by the time she discovered that Facebook and other social media sites could be used to help spread awareness of the options open to mesothelioma sufferers as well as build an online community in which those with mesothelioma, their family and friends could come together for mutual support. This was the ethos behind the founding of the Mesothelioma Warriors Facebook page which provides comfort as well as answers from one sufferer to another. “No matter what time of day, someone somewhere will respond to a post by one of our members. If you are having a down day, you can speak openly on our site, without fear of upsetting your family. Our anger group enables people to cope.”
Over more than one hundred years, a public health disaster has unfolded in Britain which has claimed more lives than any other occupational epidemic. This humanitarian catastrophe was caused by industry's use of asbestos, a substance imported from abroad. Corporate executives as well as government ministers, civil servants and elected representatives were responsible for unleashing a ferocious onslaught on ordinary men and women who were powerless in the face of this deadly carcinogen. The same excuses advanced to prolong the use of asbestos in Britain are still being promoted by vested interests in countries where asbestos use remains legal. The dimensions and severity of the British asbestos experience should be more than enough to convince a reasonable person that humanity has a right to live in an asbestos-free atmosphere. The tragedies in other countries which are also documented in the special edition of Women & Environments International Magazine,9 for which this article was written, provide corroboration, if it were even needed, that asbestos should be banned the world over.