In Memory of Nancy Tait1
The world's first citizen's champion for the rights of asbestos victims
Nancy Tait was a remarkable woman. Nothing in her Enfield upbringing or early career presaged the emergence of a grassroots activist; that she became one was due almost entirely to the completely unscrupulous and ruthless response of the authorities to her husband Bill's asbestos cancer, mesothelioma. At a time when occupational illness was an accepted fact of life, she had the temerity to insist that Bill's death from mesothelioma (1968) be officially recognized. Throughout her prolonged interaction with officials from the Post Office, Bill's former employer, her tenacity, methodical nature and intelligence overcame a succession of bureaucratic obstacles. Four years after Mr. Tait died, the state-owned company was forced to acknowledge that it had indeed been responsible for exposing the telecommunications engineer to the hazardous substance which caused his death at 61 years of age.
Historian Geoffrey Tweedale described the years to come:
Angered by the struggle for compensation and the apparent ignorance and secrecy of the authorities and the asbestos industry, Nancy Tait began her own research into asbestos diseases and began campaigning on behalf of sick workers and their relatives .
Nancy's special quality seems to have been that she would never give up and was always prepared to write that extra letter or make that extra phone call; she had the patience to take on the medical profession, the government and the industrial establishment at their own game by submerging herself (with the help of others) in the legalities and technicalities of any problem.
Working with staff at the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases (SPAID), which she founded in 1978 and which was later renamed the Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association (OEDA), Nancy became the world's first citizen's champion for the rights of asbestos victims. As the SPAID representative, she provided practical assistance for the injured as they attempted to traverse the bureaucratic minefield. Appearing at countless coroner's inquests, she supported grieving relatives whose loved ones had died from asbestos disease: thousands of lost husbands, wives, mothers, fathers. On many occasions, she crossed swords with industry spokesmen and industry-friendly experts; often, it was her evidence that was accepted.
In the booklet Asbestos Kills, which Nancy published in 1976, she highlighted the hazards of all types of asbestos, including chrysotile, noted the under-recording of asbestos deaths and criticized the inadequate compensation awarded to asbestos victims. Industry representatives were appalled at the ructions the former civil servant was causing, with a spokesman for one asbestos trade body in 1976 referring to a woman called Nancy Tait (who) has been campaigning for more information you can see a lot of fresh problems are coming up. Mrs. Tait was certainly one of the fresh problems; UK asbestos leaders such as Turner & Newall, Cape PLC and British Belting Asbestos all experienced the inconvenience of being the focus of Mrs. Tait's attention.
More than twenty years before the UK banned chrysotile (white) asbestos Nancy warned that:
the dangers of white asbestos are seriously underestimated in this country. Too often one hears from industry, local authorities, fire prevention officers, unions, general practitioners, contractors and their operatives in the media: 'it is only white asbestos.'
In a letter published in The New Statesman on September 9, 1982, she warned of the pervasive nature of the coming asbestos epidemic:
SPAID's work shows that cancer, especially mesothelioma, attacks those with slight, short and/or intermittent exposure to asbestos The people dying from mesothelioma who we are trying to help at the present time include dockers, electricians, carpenters and roofers working with asbestos cement, oil blenders and workers in the chemical industry, many with very slight exposures to white asbestos
Nancy picked up on the epidemiological trends well before statisticians and government bureaucrats; the experts, who frequently rubbished her findings, were eventually forced to admit she was right.
Consultant physician and Co-director of St. Bart's Mesothelioma Research Unit, Dr. Robin Rudd first met Mrs. Tait at the London Chest Hospital in 1983:
her prime interest in the 1980s was the need to get benefits to people suffering from asbestos-related diseases. The expertise she accumulated during her husband's case was used to good effect in her effort to force government agencies to simplify rules for benefits and eliminate the need for superfluous medical examinations. Observing that some experts were using the results of electron microscopy to compromise compensation applications, she decided that SPAID needed its own electron microscope. To acquire such an expensive piece of equipment was no easy feat for a small charity but with her usual quiet determination and ferocious work ethic, SPAID acquired an electron microscope. SPAID technicians used this high-powered piece of kit to issue reports used as evidence in court proceedings. Nancy Tait was a unique individual of unquestioned skill and commitment; she was much respected by all of us working in this field and will be much missed.
In its heyday, the OEDA offices in Enfield were bustling with clerical staff and lab technicians. The work they produced was used to good advantage in cases brought by asbestos victims and for numerous submissions to government enquiries, briefings for Members of Parliament and opinion papers for bodies such as the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. Even when the OEDA offices closed down (2008), Nancy did not retire woe betide the person who said that she had! During the second half of her life Nancy went from being a meddling amateur, as one asbestos defendant described her to a highly-esteemed national figure receiving an MBE in 1996 and an honorary doctorate from the University of Southampton in 1999. Four years ago, the Sypol Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Nancy at a prestigious London event by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health.
Reflecting on the sad news of Nancy's death, Solicitor John Pickering, who had known her for more than 30 years, remarked:
What I remember most was her messianic fervour on behalf of asbestos victims and her single-minded pursuit of their cause; small talk was not engaged in with Nancy, you either contributed to her store of information on asbestos or you sought her help, always willingly given.
To the thousands of asbestos injured people in the UK who needed help she possessed the inestimable quality that the advice she provided was free of cost. Nancy was uncorrupted and incorruptible. Her death is the end of an era. But it may not be the end of the story of asbestos disease here. The government has invited the USA and France to send their old asbestos-riddled warships here for scrapping. It is conceivable that the work will be carried out safely but I fear in 30 years time mesothelioma cases will begin to appear around Hartlepool and the country will look for another Nancy Tait to fight for the victims.
Nancy Tait was a pioneer in the field of asbestos victims' rights, having devised many of the practices and arguments still being used today. She was a resolute champion of those disadvantaged by asbestos disease and a fierce opponent of corporate skulduggery and government flimflam. Ironically, the destructive forces which created this accidental activist helped make Britain a better place.
Laurie Kazan-Allen: February 18, 2009
1 Born February 12, 1920, died February 13, 2009.