One Nation’s Asbestos Catastrophe 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Last week, millions of readers of major UK newspapers were reminded of the country’s tragic asbestos legacy in stories about asbestos-related deaths from occupational, second-hand and environmental exposures.1 Almost simultaneously, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released figures confirming the continuation of the epidemic which has been killing Britons for over a century.2 According to new HSE data, 5,000 people+ die annually from asbestos-related diseases including mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, cancers of the larynx and stomach; there is no data for the number of asbestos-related deaths caused by cancers of the ovary and pharynx. In light of the omission of data on ovarian and laryngeal cancers, it is noteworthy to report that since 2012, IARC has recognized that exposure to asbestos can also cause both these types of cancer.3


Nellie Kershaw – The World’s First Named Victim of Asbestos Disease, 1924.4

It was little short of a miracle that the articles cited in footnote 1 saw the light of day amidst all the brouhaha surrounding the July 4, 2024 General Election. It was disappointing that none of the political parties – and there seems to be an ever-increasing number of them – saw fit to address this national scandal in their manifesto, nor did they indicate how, if they were elected, they would eradicate the asbestos hazard from the built and natural environment.5

Last year, a 56-page report entitled Clearing The Air: The costs and benefits of removing asbestos from UK schools and hospitals6 undertook a forensic examination of various aspects of the UK’s asbestos legacy, weighing lives lost against financial costs incurred, and concluded that a program to expedite the eradication of the asbestos hazard was both the humane and prudent option as it would save the country thousands of lives and the public purse a staggering £3.6 billion.

On Friday July 5, asbestos victims’ groups, charities and campaigners around the country gathered to mark Action Mesothelioma Day (AMD), an annual event dedicated to raising awareness of the daily reality of the asbestos-injured and the need to prevent these avoidable deaths. In church halls, on village greens, in places of worship, in town halls and in other public spaces remembrance services were held, afternoon teas were dispensed, doves and butterflies were released, and medical research updates were shared. Every effort was made by organizers to ensure that the events were uplifting as well as enlightening; the human interaction, so vital to us all, which had been stopped because of Covid was now a focal point as patients and carers socialized with each other and with victim support workers, medical and legal experts.


Action Mesothelioma Day event held in Liverpool by the Merseyside Asbestos Victim Support Group, July 5, 2024. Photograph by Chris Ingram (Enlarge image).

In its AMD press release, the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum (the Forum) reiterated its demand that the current owners of the UK’s second largest asbestos conglomerate Cape PLC:

“donate £10 million for medical research in atonement for Cape Asbestos deliberately withholding evidence on the risks its asbestos products posed… Cape profited from the sale of its asbestos products, despite knowing the dangers their products caused. When Altrad purchased Cape it assumed the moral obligation to put right some of the wrong that has been done. £10 million may not be a lot to Altrad but it would make a significant difference to thousands of people’s lives across the globe.”7

The Forum’s demands were seconded by the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) which represents members who work for Altrad in Australia. In the AMWU media release, the Union called:

“for all those who profited from asbestos and the misery and death that followed, to be held to account and to fund proper compensation for negligently exposing people to the known carcinogen asbestos. As such, we extend our solidarity to the Cape Must Pay campaign. The AMWU supports calls for Altrad, who still profits from their subsidiary Cape, to donate AUD $19 million (£10 million pounds) towards medical research into mesothelioma, in light of its legacy.” 8

One can but hope that with its huge majority, the Labor Government will prioritize the debt this country owes to asbestos victims, boost funds for potentially life-saving research and implement a detailed, phased program for asbestos eradication that will bring the UK back into line with its European neighbors.9 Over to you, Keir!

July 8, 2024


1 Ely, J. Mother-of-three died of cancer after washing engineer husband's asbestos tainted overalls - ten years after losing him to the same illness. July 3, 2024.
Leonard, O. DEADLY RISK. Mum died of cancer after washing her husband’s work clothes – 10 years after same illness killed him. July 3, 2024.
Woman died from washing husband’s asbestos-ridden overalls. July 3, 2024.
Pickles, C. EXCLUSIVE. Tens of thousands die from asbestos-riddled schools, hospitals and social housing. It's the next big scandal, reveals CHARLES PICKLES, and a sordid tale of government cover-up that means we're STILL all breathing in deadly fibres. July 2, 2024.

2 HSE. Asbestos-related disease statistics, Great Britain 2024. July, 2024.

3 IARC. A Review of Human Carcinogens: Arsenic, Metals, and Dusts. Volume 100C (2012).

4 Nellie Kershaw's death was the first to be officially recognized as being due to “pulmonary asbestosis,” indeed the nomenclature “asbestosis” was used by Dr. W. E. Cooke in his 1924 report of her case to the British Medical Journal.
Selikoff I J, Greenberg M. A Landmark Case in Asbestosis. J.A.M.A. 1991;265:898-901.
Cooke WE. Fibrosis of the lungs due to the inhalation of asbestos dust. BMJ. 1924;2:147.
Kazan-Allen, L. The Female Face of Britain's Asbestos Catastrophe. July 2012.

5 It’s been reported that asbestos material remains present in over five million buildings including the majority of the country’s schools and hospitals.

6 Mesothelioma UK. Clearing The Air: The costs and benefits of removing asbestos from UK schools and hospitals. 2023.



9 Kazan-Allen, L. Not Waving but Drowning: UK vs EU Asbestos Policy 2023. May 2, 2023.



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