Shining a Light on Asbestos Secrets
So many corporations behind the global asbestos epidemic claiming ~300,000 lives every year, remain in rude financial health.1 These include the multinational pharmaceutical Johnson and Johnson, the American chemical company Union Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemicals,2 and Cape PLC, formerly the Cape Asbestos Company.3 Of course, there are many other culprits whose names spring to mind including Johns Manville (US), James Hardie (Australia), Eternit (UK),4 and Eternit/Etex,5 all of whom are flourishing despite their asbestos wrongdoings.
Many of the crimes committed by executives, managers and company doctors acting both individually and jointly have been exposed as a result of legal actions, historical research and testimonies by former workers.6 Newspaper articles, academic papers and multiple books have been written about the asbestos industrys malfeasance with the 900-page textbook by Dr. Barry Castleman entitled: Asbestos Medical and Legal Aspects one of the most well-known.
Despite decades of investigations, long-buried secrets continue to emerge with the continued mobilization of asbestos campaigning groups and the tireless efforts of researchers. In March 2022, the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK (the Forum) released a treasure trove of internal documents from the Cape Asbestos archives.
The story told by the 1,600+ pages uploaded was not a pretty one. Cape lied to the government, regulators, employees, customers and the public about the cancer hazard posed by use of its products. It colluded with asbestos stakeholders at home and abroad to suppress information on the health risks of asbestos and to prevent other manufacturers from introducing warning labels Despite the fact that the company knew full well that exposure to asbestos could cause cancer and respiratory diseases and that in-house dust sampling had demonstrated high levels of airborne fiber levels as a result of simply handling Asbestos Insulation Board (Asbestolux)7 and Marinite, Cape deliberately withheld information and lobbied the Government to protect its profits.8
The corporate documents, including reports, memos and correspondence, which the Forum was able to share, were meant to be destroyed following a major asbestos product liability trial in 2017. Fortunately, once the Forum and its legal advisors became aware of the situation, they acted swiftly to preserve the valuable evidence. It was a complex undertaking involving protracted litigation until finally in 2019 the Supreme Court accepted the Forums arguments and ruled in favor of open justice.9
Another historical document Asbestos as a Health Hazard in the United Kingdom (1967) by Dr. I. C. Sayers which I recently acquired from a US colleague was first located in the 1980s in the library of the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association later renamed the Asbestos Institute.10 The index card referring to this document (no. 3095) read: Confidential not circulated.11 The researcher who visited the Montreal archive reported that it contained thousands of documents, including a few unpublished items such as the 19-page report by Dr. Sayers, an official at Union Carbide U.K. Limited.
The first sentence made the authors remit crystal clear: This report has been written to show the concern on toxicological grounds of those people involved with asbestos in the U.K. Throughout the text, Sayers covered technical matters, legal issues and the changing perception by the companys customers of the advisability of purchasing chrysotile (white) asbestos called Coalinga or Calidria asbestos produced by Union Carbides California mines from 1963 to 1985:
Union Carbide U.K. Limited has been promoting the sale of Coalinga asbestos for just over two years. During this time, the public has become increasingly aware of the considerable health risks associated with the use of this material. This has come about with a mixture of both good and misleading press articles, and in January, interest was accelerated by a provocative television programme in which Blue asbestos was spectacularly condemned. So far, over 20 potential customers have raised the issue, and have requested an assurance that Carbides material will not be a source of danger to their employees 12
The first sub-heading under the discussion section of this report was entitled: Moral Issues:
There seems little doubt that the toxic effects of our Coalinga product are still largely unknown. There is a general inference that Crocidolite is more liable to produce mesothelioma. Exoneration of Chrysotile has not been made, however. A discussion with Dr. W. Taylor of the Department of Social Medicine, Queens College, Dundee, two days ago, revealed that concern over asbestosis is still increasing, and that Chrysotile is definitely implicated along with other types of asbestos.
It therefore seems that on the basis of present evidence, we are not entitled under any circumstances to state that our material is not a health hazard. What is more, if it is believed that a potential customer would use our material dangerously, and that he is unaware of the toxicity question, then it must surely be our duty to caution him and point out means whereby he can hold the asbestos air float concentration to a minimum.
And yet, despite this acknowledgment, Union Carbide continued to exploit its California mines13 and sell asbestos. One U.S. attorney was scathing in his comments about the companys actions:
Mr. Sayers premonitions on the future of asbestos disease were not only ignored, the companys asbestos production multiplied every year for the ten years following the Sayers Report. Union Carbide gave the job of drafting an information sheet on Calidria to its marketing department. The corporate medical director did not participate in outlining the information that Carbide would relay to the purchasers of its fiber. The Asbestos Toxicology Report mentioned nothing of Ian Sayers concerns about the TLV charade, completely mislead the reader about Calidrias true carcinogenic potential, and in the words of one Carbide asbestos purchaser, was atrocious and created more questions than it answered.14
Following the Forums example, we have uploaded this damning piece of evidence so that others might consider whether its contents could be of use for future court cases.
Asbestos defendants like Cape and Union Carbide might well hope that with the passage of time their misdeeds and crimes will have been forgotten. They would be wrong. A multimedia exhibition which opened to the public on March 31, 2022 at Londons famous Serpentine Gallery15 featured an installation entitled The Body Blow by London artist-filmmaker Ilona Sagar, in collaboration with a local asbestos victims group, which detailed the:
horrific effect on the community around Cape Asbestos, a factory in Barking that has led to hundreds of deaths from asbestos-related diseases [the work explored] asbestos as a material, its colonial industrial history, the story of the Barking factory and the housing estate that was built in its stead and the diseases and their effects both in terms of health and socially. LBBD has the highest rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos related cancers in London, and Sagar and her collaborators zone in on what it means to care for those who are diagnosed, both in terms of the primary hospital care and offering guidance on the bureaucratic hoops they must jump through.16
Through art, community mobilization and legal action, families in Barking continue their efforts to hold Cape to account. The same is true in other UK asbestos hotspots such as Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Southampton, where generations of families have learned the harsh reality of living and working with asbestos.
The Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK has launched a campaign to publicize the shocking contents of the Cape archive and is calling on the company to:
make a donation of £10 million towards Mesothelioma Research. We believe victims and their families deserve this by way of an apology from Cape for their deliberate deception and shamelessly causing deaths, adding insult by vehemently defending cases.
I would suggest that this donation be regarded as a down payment on what is owed not just by Cape but by other asbestos-using companies such as Union Carbide. Research funds should be extracted from all the corporations whose actions were responsible for the UKs worst occupational disaster. The medical research capacity exists in this country to put funding to good use in pioneering a better understanding of how to treat and possibly cure asbestos-related diseases. The companies which profited from the asbestos trade have a huge debt to pay. Donations to life-saving research could be the first step towards moving forward.
April 8, 2022
1Takala J. et al. Comparative Analysis of the Burden of Injury and Illness at Work in Selected Countries and Regions. June 2017.
5 Website of Etex, formerly Eternit. Accessed April 6, 2022.
7 Bailey, I. Mesothelioma death from care home renovations the story of Cape. April 4, 2022.
8 Press release of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK (the Forum). Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UKs landmark battle for historical documents reveal that Cape knew of the dangers of Asbestos Insulation Board/Asbestolux. March 10, 2022.
Siddique, H. UK asbestos maker withheld information on materials risks, court papers show. March 20, 2022.
9 The Supreme Courts verdict noted: The constitutional principle of open justice applies to all courts and tribunals exercising the judicial power of the state. They all have inherent jurisdiction to determine what that principle requires in terms of access to documents or other information placed before them... The default position is that the public should be allowed access, not only to the parties submissions and arguments, but also to the documents which have been placed before the court and referred to during the hearing, which are not limited to those the judge has been asked to or has said that he has read
Supreme Court. Summary: Cape Intermediate Holdings Ltd (Appellant/Cross-Respondent) v Dring (for and on behalf of Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK) (Respondent/Cross-Appellant)  UKSC 38. July 29, 2019.
Supreme Court. Judgment: Cape Intermediate Holdings Ltd (Appellant/Cross-Respondent) v Dring (for and on behalf of Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK) (Respondent/Cross-Appellant)  UKSC 38. July 29, 2019.
Hyde, J. Supreme Court ruling grants public access to court documents. July 29, 2019.
10 Throughout much of the 20th century, the Asbestos Institute rechristened the Chrysotile Institute some years before it closed (2012) acted as the mouthpiece for the global asbestos industry.
11 Castleman, Barry. Asbestos Medical and Legal Aspects. 5th Edition. Aspen Publishers. 2005.
12 Union Carbide U.K. Limited. Asbestos as a Health Hazard in the United Kingdom. 1967.
13 EPA. Coalinga Asbestos Mine CA. Accessed April 8, 2022.
14 Union Carbide Corporation: A Legacy of Mesothelioma and Asbestos. September 17, 2013.
15 The Body Blow opened at Barking Town Hall on April 2, 2022.
Serpentine Galleries. February 18, 2022.
16 Radio Ballads at Serpentine North Gallery review: a show that affirms the transformative power of art. April 2, 2022.