A Dozen Famous & Infamous Figures and their Surprising Links to Asbestos 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



During the 30+ years that I have been involved in researching and writing about asbestos issues, I have come across many curious asbestos connections of well-known people. I briefly recount some of them below. The countries and individuals are listed alphabetically.


A much-loved Australian politician and country singer Ernest Bridge, or Ernie as most people called him, died from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma aged 76 in 2013. He believed that he contracted the disease as a result of toxic exposures in the 1980s when he was the Minister in charge of withdrawing government services from the asbestos mining town of Wittenoom. Before he died, he instigated a lawsuit against the Government of Western Australia, the Shire of Ashburton, CSR Limited, Midalco, Hancock Prospecting and Wright Prospecting.


West Australian Labor MP Ernie Bridge, the first indigenous Australian to be a Cabinet Minister in any Australian government.

Australian icon Lincoln Hall died of mesothelioma in 2012, aged 56. He was, for many Aussies, the embodiment of the country’s “can do” mentality. He was a mountain climber, philanthropist, author, adventurer, and member of the first Australian expedition in 1984 to climb Mount Everest. In the 1960s, Hall had worked as a builder during which time he was exposed to asbestos contained in construction materials.

Sir David James Martin, a Rear Admiral in the Royal Australian Navy and later the Governor of New South Wales, died of pleural mesothelioma in 1990 as a result of asbestos exposure experienced during his naval career.



Brazilian television host, singer and actress, Hebe Camargo 1929-2012.

Television host and singer Hebe Camargo, called the “Queen of Brazilian TV,” died at her home in São Paulo in 2012, two years after she had been diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma. No one knows where she had been exposed to asbestos.

Czech Republic

Frank Kafka, the author of the 1915 novella Metamorphosis, was considered to be one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. Kafka was a partner with his brother-in-law Karl Hermann in the Prague Asbestos Works, a factory located in Prague’s Žižkov district. He hated the factory and begrudged time spent managing it. Kafka’s descriptions of the factory emphasized the dehumanizing aspects of the work and the dusty conditions.


Londoner Malcolm McLaren was an artist, a musician, a fashion designer and an early promoter of punk rock bands including the Sex Pistols. In partnership with his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood, he operated a boutique called SEX in Chelsea from 1974-76. It’s believed that he was exposed to asbestos when he was renovating the shop, built during the asbestos heyday in the 1970s, to make it look like a bomb had hit it. In 2009, he was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma; he was 64 years old when he died the following year.


Dr Gaddam Vivekanand Venkatswamy is a medical doctor, a former Member of the Indian Parliament and the founder and Chairman of Visaka Industries Ltd., one of India's largest asbestos-cement companies. India is the world’s largest asbestos-consuming country, importing on average 342,500 tonnes/per year between 2015 and 2020. It must have been very helpful to India’s asbestos lobbyists to have one of their number in Parliament


The Labor MP for the Fife town of Glenrothes John MacDougall died in 2008 aged 60 of mesothelioma, two years after being diagnosed. As a boilermaker and employee at an oil rig construction yard, he had multiple opportunities for asbestos exposures. He was a friend of the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown who once told me that he knew about mesothelioma as a result of the deaths of so many of his constituents as well as that of his friend John MacDougall.


After more than 50 years at the forefront of Spain’s burgeoning television and cultural revolution, broadcaster, journalist and presenter José María Íñigo was a much-loved household name having developed and taken part in many of the country’s most iconic television programs.


Spanish TV Legend José María Íñigo

He died in 2018 from mesothelioma contracted, he believed, as a result of asbestos exposures at studios run by the national broadcaster RTVE.


Barack Obama

In his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Barack Obama wrote about his time as a community organizer with residents of social housing in Altgeld Gardens, Chicago. He had struggled to find an issue that would mobilize the community until one of the mothers asked him whether he thought there was asbestos in their apartments. “I don’t know,” he replied “but we can find out.” Lessons he learned at Altgeld about how to motivate grassroots groups to achieve change were never forgotten.

Steve McQueen

Arguably one of the most famous 20th century Hollywood icons, Steve McQueen was also an asbestos victim. Called the “King of Cool,” he was the anti-hero personified – with his leather jackets and collection of motorcycles – and lived life in the fast lane. In 1980, he died aged 50 from pleural mesothelioma. As a marine, it was likely he was exposed to asbestos during his military service; he was also a keen racing driver and mechanic and could also have been exposed to asbestos contained in automotive products.

Donald Trump

In his 1997 book: Art of the Comeback, Donald Trump said that the campaign to ban asbestos was “led by the mob” and warned Americans not to reject “the greatest fire-proofing material ever used.” According to Trump, asbestos “got a bad rap” and was “100 percent safe, once applied.” His support for asbestos was widely known and made it as far as Russia where one of the country’s biggest asbestos producers put his profile on shipments of Russian asbestos.


President Trump’s “seal of approval” on asbestos shipments from Russia 2018.

In a 2012 tweet, Trump reiterated the claim that had asbestos fire-proofing not been replaced with “junk that doesn’t work, the World Trade Center would never have burned down.”

July 24, 2023



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