Britains Summer of Asbestos Dissent
A national campaign Act Now on Asbestos kicked off on July 2, 2023 when The Sunday Times ran a front-page article headlined: 10,000 Killed by Asbestos in Schools. Other texts regarding the new campaign were included on pages 2, 8 & 9.1
The Sunday Times issue of July 9 ramped up the pressure revealing the personal tragedy of NHS nurse Guru Ghoorah who died aged 45 of mesothelioma having been exposed to asbestos between 1993 and 2003 at hospitals in Essex including St. Margarets, Runwell, Harold Wood and Little Highwood. The tragic plight of David Flaherty, who is dying from mesothelioma, was the focus of another article headlined: Fibres from dads work clothes handed man death sentence decades later.2 The Sunday Times is calling on the Government to delineate a detailed and timetabled plan to address the scandal posed by the continued presence of asbestos throughout the countrys infrastructure. As would be expected, this campaign attracted a great deal of support and media coverage.3
On July 16th yet another asbestos front-page headline in the Sunday Times screamed: Failure to remove asbestos is a national scandal. The article was continued on page 4 with a commentary written by the former Health Secretary Matt Hancock who categorized the continued asbestos contamination of UK schools and hospitals as a slow-burn crisis featured on page 21:
Its terrifying that four in five schools still contain asbestos There is no justification for any further delay in asbestos removal. We must address this crisis head-on and prioritise prevention as the key strategy for safeguarding public health By removing asbestos, we can reduce the number of people developing asbestos-related diseases in future, alleviating the burden on the NHS and freeing up resources for other pressing needs Its time to consign asbestos to the history books.4
As these Sunday Times articles were being published, data was released by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) confirming the continuation of the asbestos epidemic killing 5,000+ Britons every year.5 To put that figure into context, the same year there were 1,588 road deaths; in other words, more than three times as many people died in 2021 from asbestos-related diseases as from road traffic accidents. The CEO of Mesothelioma UK Consultant Nurse Liz Darlison memorably summed up this situation in her testimony to a Parliamentary Committee in 2021:
The total loss of life is equal to the sinking of more than three Titanics every year Some of those aboard the Titanic survived the voyage; sadly this isnt possible for someone with mesothelioma. Treatments provide hope, but the Government needs to commit to ring fence mesothelioma research monies and a national plan to remove asbestos to prevent exposure.6
Who caused this humanitarian catastrophe? Governments of many hues were responsible for failing to act effectively and in a timely fashion to prevent toxic exposures; corporations routinely exposed workers, their families and members of the public to asbestos liberated as a result of manufacturing processes, transportation, dumping and use. The bigger the company, the bigger their share of blame.
When the truth came out, or rather when it was excavated from the depths of locked corporate files and government archives, it wasnt pretty. There is no doubt about the knowledge possessed by big asbestos companies like Turner & Newall Ltd. and Cape Asbestos. As a result of a legal battle begun by the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK (AVSGF UK/the Forum) in 2017, 1,661 pages of corporate documents were made public which revealed that Cape:
The unregulated and widespread use of toxic material by Cape and others has given the UK the world's highest incidence of mesothelioma, the signature cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Having studied the documentation retrieved and preserved by their lawsuit, the Forum launched the Cape Must Pay Campaign, which called on the company to make a £10 million donation to medical research. As Forum spokesperson Nevyn Stevenson explained:
Cape profited from the sale of its asbestos products, despite knowing the dangers their products caused. Many died as a result. It is only right that they put right some of the wrong they have done.
Scores of MPS none of whom are from the Conservative Party expressed support for this campaign in an Early Day Motion entitled Cape Holdings and asbestos research:
That this House notes the court case which resulted in Cape International Holdings, one of the worlds largest asbestos manufacturers, being forced to publish documentation revealing their cover up of the dangers of asbestos, and activity lobbying the Government to water down exposure limits and warnings; is concerned that Cape is a major contributor to the mesothelioma epidemic in the UK, where rates are the worst in the world, and must be held accountable for the many lives affected; and supports the call by the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum and the Trades Union Congress for Cape Holdings PLC to make a £10 million donation towards the funding of mesothelioma research.8
On July 7, 2023, UK asbestos victims groups, cancer charities and campaigning groups held information sessions, demonstrations, church services and sundry events to mark Action Mesothelioma Day (AMD) an annual event to raise public awareness of the UKs ongoing asbestos epidemic.9 The campaign to make the current owners of Cape Asbestos donate £10 million for medical research was a highpoint of the days activities as can be seen by the photos displayed below.
AMD July 7, 2023 in Birmingham. Photo courtesy of the Asbestos Support Central England.
AMD July 7, 2023 in Sheffield Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Yorkshire and Humberside Asbestos Support.
AMD July 7, 2023 in London. Photo courtesy of the London Asbestos Support Awareness Group.
The Monday after AMD, Forum campaigners, members and supporters gathered at the asbestos memorial in Barking, East London where Cape had been one of the areas largest employers to highlight the price paid by ordinary Londoners for Capes profits. Forum Chair Rob Rayner said:
It was sobering reading those words on the memorial to asbestos victims in Barking. We talked to locals who knew the history of Cape's asbestos factory in Barking. As we listened, the enormity of what Cape did all those decades ago really hit home.10
July 10, 2023. Barking & Dagenham Asbestos Memorial. Picture courtesy of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK
The fate that befell Lesley Thompsons East End family was not unusual:
We lost all our family on our mothers side to asbestosis my grandfather and his three sons in their thirties and forties, my grandmother at 63 and my mother at 60. They all lived next door to and most of them worked in the Cape Asbestos factory in Barking, east London. Children, including my mother, played snowballs with raw asbestos in the streets. Many employees in the factory died young. They coughed nonstop the so-called Barking cough. Their death certificates usually stated that they had died from tuberculosis; there was never a mention of asbestosis and certainly not mesothelioma. My grandmother never received any compensation for the early deaths of her husband and sons.11
July 10, 2023. Cape Must Pay campaigners in Barking, London. Picture courtesy of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK (Enlarge image).
Political backing for the Cape Must Pay Campaign was manifested later that day when campaigners adjourned to Westminster. The support we got from MPs, Lords and trade unionists in London was, said Forum Chair Rob Rayner incredible. Asbestos victims and anti-asbestos campaigners had travelled from all over the country to be there. Some of us had never campaigned on anything like this before. When we got our trains home, every single one of us left determined to see this campaign through.12
MP Ian Lavery in center with Cape Must Pay campaigners in Westminster July 10, 2023. Picture courtesy of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK.
On Monday afternoon, July 17th, the fight was taken to the Warrington headquarters of Altrad, the current owners of Cape Asbestos. Members and supporters of the Forum gathered at the Appleton Thorn Trading Estate, Lyncastle Way, WA4 4ST to repeat their demand for a £10 million donation to medical research.
Forum Chair Rob Rayner addressing demonstration in Warrington on July 17, 2023. Photo courtesy of the Forum (Enlarge image) .
The demonstration included a mock replay of the trial the company lost at the Supreme Court in 2019 in its quest to destroy corporate records showing knowledge of the asbestos hazard.
Mock trial during Warrington demonstration. Photo courtesy of the Forum (Enlarge image).
John Flanagan from the Merseyside Asbestos Victim Support Group (MAVS) played a part in the mock trial; he is on the right of the picture above wearing a flat cap. Voicing the views of Merseysides asbestos victims, John Flanagan commented on the July 17 event as follows:
Cape has a moral responsibility to donate some of the profits the company made in past decades for its shareholders and senior company management and continues to make today from its asbestos stripping division. Its an affront to common decency that the company stands idly by and watches while their previous employees and those who worked naively with the killer dust, despite the companys knowledge of the hazards, continue to suffer. 13
The Forum and its members have made this campaign a top priority; the company would do well to consult public relations consultants who would, no doubt, advise them that there is nothing to be gained in a war of attrition against cancer sufferers and bereaved families. On the other hand, Cape/Altrad could begin its journey for rehabilitation by making this donation and encouraging other companies with similar industrial legacies to do likewise.
July 20, 2023
1 Boggan, S. Yorke, H. Griffiths, S. 10,000 Killed by Asbestos in Schools. July 2, 2023.
2 Spencer, B. Fibres from dads work clothes handed man death sentence decades later. July 9, 2023.
3 Woodland, D. Classroom asbestos kills 10,000 pupils and teachers in four decades - as fears raised 21,000 UK schools are STILL riddled with deadly toxic fibres. July 2, 2023.
Liversedge, B. Sunday Times backs call to remove asbestos in schools. July 3, 2023.
Petrescu, I. Asbestos in UK schools responsible for 10,000 deaths in four decades. July 12, 2023.
4 Yorke, H & Spencer, B. Failure to remove asbestos is a national scandal. July 16, 2023.Pages 1 & 4.
Hancock, M. Acting on asbestos will save lives and millions for the NHS. July 16, 2023. Page 21.
5 The HSE estimates that there are 5,0000 asbestos-related disease deaths per year currently including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
HSE. Asbestos-related disease statistics, Great Britain 2023. (July).
HSE. HSE Mesothelioma Statistics for Great Britain, 2023. (July).
6 Mesothelioma UK Chief Executive gives testimony to Parliamentary Committee. November 17, 2021.
7 Forum website. Cape Must Pay! Accessed March 17, 2023.
Forum website. Cape Documents with summary. Accessed March 17, 2023.
8 Cape Holdings and asbestos research. EDM (Early Day Motion) 93: tabled on May 23, 2022. As of July 14, 2023, 39 MPS had signed the motion.
9 AVSGF UK. MPs & Mayor support Cape Must Pay! campaign at Action Mesothelioma Day 2023. Accessed July 17, 2023.
10 AVSGF UK. Report: Cape Must Pay! campaign in London, 10th July 2023.
11 Letters to the Editor. Sunday Times. July 9, 2023.
12 Email from Rob Rayner. July 12, 2023.
13 Email from John Flanagan. July 18, 2023.