Action on Asbestos
Asbestos campaigners from Manchester, in
London to lobby
THERE was a bunch of determined people down in the City of London on Tuesday. Some arrived dressed up as City 'fat cats' (sorry I missed that bit)to draw attention. Later they took tea in the Grange St.Paul's Hotel. But they had not come for fun, and nor were they going to be fobbed off with tea and sympathy.
The members of the Asbestos Victims Support Group from Greater Manchester had come to lobby the Annual General Meeting of the Association of British Insurers. They were protesting the continued failure to compensate asbestos victims and their families. Their protest was supported by members of the Construction Safety Campaign in London.
Building workers have been among the main sufferers from asbestos-related illnesses and deaths. But because symptoms may develop over many years, during which a worker may have worked for several employers, or for sub-contractors, it can be difficult to pin responsibility. Firms may have changed names or gone out of business.
Pleural plaques, scarring of the lungs caused by small fibres, usually asbestos, can develop up to twenty years after exposure. They may be the first indication of what becomes mesothelioma, a painful and deadly cancer which attacks the membrane covering the lungs and abdomen.
Last year UCATT, the construction union, had members and supporters send cards to Justice Secretary Jack Straw over the Law Lords judgement that pleural plaques were not eligible for compensation. Straw replied that the government was "looking into" this, but that in view of the strength of the Law Lords' findings "I do not want to raise hopes in the matter..."; although going on to say that the government were "listening carefully to representations" and "exploring options" on what could be done.
When the Scottish parliament passed a bill overturning the Lords' decision, the insurance companies promptly said they would challenge the legality of this.
But asbestos sufferers and victims can come in many shapes and sizes. There were the women employed making World War II gas masks which contained an asbestos filter in Nottingham, many of whom did not live to see the compensation for which they fought. There were the women in Hebden Bridge who contracted mesothelioma from washing their husbands overalls - the men worked for Turner and Newalls, and of course many of them were victims. There was Barry Welch, who developed fatal mesothelioma thirty years after playing as a boy on his father's knee, when Dad came home from his work at Kingsnorth power station, in Kent, where the pipes were lagged with asbestos.
Mr.Welch, whose mesothelioma showed in 2003, died the following year, aged 33, and was rated the youngest victim. But last year that record was taken by Leigh Carlisle, from Failsworth, in Greater Manchester. Leigh had a job in marketing, not what you'd think of as a dangerous occupation. Her exposure came when she was a child:
"I used to take a shortcut across a yard in Failsworth on my way to primary school. I knew that men working there cut asbestos sheets and handled asbestos materials in the yard, but I had no idea that by walking through the yard I could have inadvertently got cancer."
Leigh was just 26 when doctors who had been investigating her chronic and severe abdominal pains diagnosed the cause as mesothelioma.Though she had to give up her job, she started campaigning for recognition of the disease and its causes, and for an investigation into asbestos use in schools built in the 1960s and 1970s. People were impressed by her courage and determination. Had Leigh Carlisle been able to support Tuesday's demonstration she'd most likely have been there. But she died last year aged just 28 in North Manchester Genral Hospital.
A survey reported in the Manchester Evening News found asbestos in 8 out of 10 schools in the Greater Manchester area. Meanwhile, UCATT has told the government that there are insufficient regulations on the use of asbestos in housing.
It took decades after the dangers of asbestos became known for the industry to acknowledge them. It is taking a long time for companies and insurers to face responsibility. Tuesday's lobby had a modest and reasonable demand - that an Employers' Liability Insurance Bureau be set up, paid for through insurance premiums. Tis would ensure that those killed or injured by uninsured employers have the same right to obtain compensation as people injured or killed by uninsured drivers, who can claim from the Motor Insurers Bureau..
Above all, campaigners want insurers and employers to stop playing for time so that asbestos victims die before they can win compensation. They want society to recognise its duty to those suffering and likely to suffer, and to eradicate remaining dangers of asbestos. Last month they petitioned parliament for government funding to research mesothelioma, said to be the least researched cancer. At present 6 people a day in Britain die from the disease, and it is the fastest growing cancer among women. It is estimated some 70,000 people could die from mesothelioma in this country over the next 30-40 years.
Greater Manchester Asbestos Victims Support Group is being hosted at Manchester Hazards Centre. See: