Travels with Rie
In September, 2003, I visited a number of locations in the United Kingdom, as part of an ongoing effort to establish an international network of asbestos victim support groups. I attended the Hazards Conference in London, gave a seminar at the LSHTM, and travelled to Wales and Northern Ireland.
Asbestos – the Global Killer
On the 5th of September there was a public meeting and photographic exhibition at Bankside House (behind the Tate Modern). This event was to launch the 14th national Hazards Conference (5-7th Sept 2003.), for which over 500 trade union safety reps, specialists, campaigners and relatives of those killed and injured at work were gathered. The exhibition focused on the global effects of the asbestos industry, with contributions from London, Glasgow, Liverpool, South Africa and Japan. There were also a number of presentations, with speakers from the UK and Japan (me).
Jimmy Cloughly from the Clydebank Asbestos Group spoke on how the asbestos industry affected the Glaswegian Community. Asbestos was imported via the port, put into the ships they built there and used in the factories along the river Clyde. The result was that large numbers of workers and family members were afflicted with asbestos diseases for which there were inadequate legal procedures to obtain compensation. Strong ‘grassroots’ campaigning over may years has resulted in a measure of justice for some of the victims, but many are still unable to claim for injury done to them by negligent employers.
Nancy Tait from the Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association spoke on the development of the asbestos industry in London and Southeast England. After speaking on the effects of asbestos diseases on victims, she gave an expert talk on the microscopic detection of asbestos disease. In particular, she described how inadequate or misinterpreted microscopy could be used as a basis to deny valid claims from victims.
I spoke on what happened in my own area: Yokosuka, a city with a large naval base and shipbuilding industry. The campaign to assist victims started 20 years ago. Trade unions, clinics and our (OSH) Centre work together to identify sufferers. Once found, they are given medical treatment and legal assistance to process compensation claims.
Mick Holder from the London Hazards Centre presented the exhibit submitted by Action for Southern Africa on the asbestos mining communities that have suffered at the hands of UK firm Cape plc who operated a number of South African asbestos mines.
Mick concluded by talking about the continuing global trade of these disgusting companies who still purvey their poison. In the UK it is expected at least 150,000 will die from asbestos disease by 2025, yet asbestos companies still target Pacific nations and developing countries.
My seminar was hosted by Dr. Tony Fletcher, Public and Environmental Health Research Unit, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). Entitled "WE LIVE. WE ARE ANGRY. WE SUPPORT EACH OTHER" it was concerned with a growing public health problem in Japan that is still barely recognized: asbestos-induced disease, seen from the point-of-view of the victims. Ignorance among workers of their rights to protection and compensation, and ignorance of medical doctors about how to recognize asbestosis and other asbestos-related diseases, lead to isolation among those who are touched by these conditions. Much of the exposure has happened through employment at the naval base and shipyard in the city of Yokosuka.
In Japan there are serious questions about the role of Government in facilitating claims and difficulties frequently arise when asbestos fibers (bodies) are not found. The prospects for compensation for some of the workers I have introduced have been compromised by these particular problems. About 10 students attended the Seminar. Unfortunately, no Japanese students due to the fact that the Autumn term had not then started.
Asbestos Awareness in Wales
Following the London meetings I went to Wales to meet with members of a recently formed women’s group. All of the founder members are widows of men who died from mesothelioma. I stayed with Mary Nicol, the secretary of the Welsh group. Her own husband had passed away the previous year at the age of 51 with peritoneal mesothelioma. This support group was initially established by a solicitor who realised that there was a need for emotional as well as practical support for victims of asbestos disease, but there was nothing like this in Wales. The members now hold monthly meetings. They have decided not to apply for Charitable status as they wish their fund raising monies to go directly to medical research on mesothelioma and asbestos-related disease. Paul Thorburn, former Welsh rugby captain, hosted a recent fund raising concert in Cardiff in aid of mesothelioma research and has agreed to be Patron of the group. Their aim is to provide a source of practical help to sufferers and their families by accessing the latest clinical trials, putting them in touch with appropriate social services etc., and helping them cope with the emotional trauma involved.
We called on the Deputy Lord Mayor, Councillor Vita Jones, at the Mansion House, at 10.30 on Wednesday, 10th of September. The officers of the Welsh group, Mary Nicol, Ann Howells (Fund Raiser), and Peter Duncan (Publicity and practical supporter) accompanied me. My visit gave the group an opportunity to appeal to the Deputy Lord Mayor for support; they also enjoyed seeing how grand the Mansion House was!
Mary Nicol is on the extreme right of this
picture taken during the Mansion House visit.
I was also invited to a dinner with the Welsh group. We were able to share ideas on how group members can support one another. In addition, I organized a women's group, I was very happy to share the situation of women there.
The death of an ex-Mayor, Northern Ireland
I then went to Derry (Londonderry), Northern Ireland. I had intended to visit a group in Belfast, another city with a history of shipbuilding, but the President of the group there – the late Robbie Brown – was already very ill at that time, so they suggested I visit Derry instead.
I stayed with Mary Carlin, whose husband Tony had recently (February 2003) died from mesothelioma aged 57. Tony Carlin, formerly Mayor and city councillor of Derry was a respected local politician The malignant pleural mesothelioma with which he was diagnosed in 2002 probably arose from working just 1 month with laggers when he was 18 years old. Tony had been receiving chemotherapy in Belfast but if the oncology nurse hadn’t informed him of an asbestos victims’ meeting in Belfast, they Derry group might never have been established.
Trade unionist Gerard Quigley had been interested in starting an asbestos victims group in Derry since his sister Angela Clerke had been diagnosed with pleural plaques in 1998. She had been exposed to asbestos by washing her husband Joe’s clothes. Joe, who used to work at Du Pont as a lagger, had seen many of his workmates die in the space of a few years. Du Pont, BOC (British Oxygen Company) and Coolkeragh Power Station have large installations along the River Foyle. The Du Pont, chemical plant and Coolkeragh Power Station had extensive insulation. BOC have legal toxic waste dumps all over Derry. They must contain loads of asbestos.
It was while Gerard and Angela were attending a Belfast meeting that they met Tony Carlin. With his support and inspiration they were able carry their project forward and in June 2003 'Justice for Asbestos North West' was established. There are 60 members (20 diagnosed with asbestos disease). Unfortunately, Tony passed away before the group was founded, but his death has alerted Derry people to the dangers of asbestos and asbestos-related disease. My informal visit was timely and hopefully has given them some ideas as to how they can develop their group further.
On 12th of September, we took part in a radio programme on BBC Radio Foyle. Gerard Quigley, Mary Carlin, Johnny McIntire (his daughter died from mesothelioma due to washing his clothes at the age of 39) and I were interviewed. The presenter, Susan McReynolds wanted to know what was happening in Derry. She asked Johnny not only about his daughter but about his condition, too. He said "Well.... I am not in good condition."
We also went to visit the Derry City Council (Deputy Lord Mayor), Mark Danken, the Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and John Hume MP, MEP, Nobel Peace Prize winner. We asked them for support in obtaining Tony Carlin’s Death Certificate. An autopsy was carried out but no certificate was issued before burial.
Group members meeting the Deputy Lord Mayor are (L-R): Jaqueline
(Mary's daughter), Gerry Quigley, Angela Clerk , Joe Clerk and Mary Carlin.
On the night of 12th of September, we had a public meeting at the local hospital. Attendance was around 100, with many excuses (too bad!) from councillors, trade unions, medical doctors and staff. I explained how we were able to cooperate with medical staff, trade unions and victim support groups. One of the retired workers asked why the safety reps of trade unions hadn't attended the meeting (many of the participants were talking about this issue). It is a challenge the group needs to address, though some medical professionals have become more interested in asbestos problems following Tony’s death; realising their lack of information on the subject. Justice for Asbestos North West calls for funding, telephone consultancy and education in awareness for retired workers and families as well as medical professionals.
From my experiences in the UK it seems that there is still a lack of public awareness about asbestos problems. I had thought that the UK would be more advanced than Japan in this respect, but this seems not to be the case. Hopefully, my visit, especially my appearances in traditional Japanese costume, will have done something to publicize the work of the support groups I contacted.
Although support groups in both Japan and the UK are concerned with very similar areas, such as medical research, treatment and compensation etc., approaches vary greatly. Interchange of ideas can only help both our causes. I hope my visit has been instrumental in helping the development of stronger UK groups.
January 17, 2004