Monday, November 23, 2009
Asbestos: A shameful legacy
The authorities knew it was deadly more than 100 years ago, but it was only banned entirely in 1999. The annual death rate will peak at more than 5,000 in 2016 – now MPs have a chance to do the decent thing.
By Emily Dugan
They called it "the Barking cough". First it began like any other: a tickle in the chest and slight pain on breathing. Then, within a matter of months, the sufferer was in agony, gasping for air and eventually suffocating to death as a vicious cancer attacked their lungs waiting for the final lingering, inevitable end which might not come for decades.
The legacy of the Cape Asbestos factory in Barking, east London, where asbestos-related cancers continue to kill scores of residents, is a deadly one. Hundreds of people have died since the factory closed in 1968.
The story of Barking's "industrial killing machine" is a story repeated up and down the country where thousands of Britons continue to be blighted by their industrial past. Exposure to asbestos is now the biggest killer in the British workforce, killing about 4,000 people every year – more than who die in traffic accidents. The shocking figures are the grim legacy of the millions of tons of the dust shipped to Britain to make homes, schools, factories and offices fire resistant. It was used in products from household fabrics to hairdryers.
Those most at risk are ordinary workers and their families. Whether it was dockyard workers who unloaded the lethal cargoes, or those in the factories exposed to the fibres, or the carpenters, laggers, plumbers, electricians and shipyard workers who routinely used asbestos for insulation – all suffered. So did the wives who washed the work overalls and the children who hugged their parents or played in the dust-coated streets.
The exposure to asbestos in Britain is largely historical but the death toll is alarmingly etched on our future. Asbestos fibres can lie dormant on victims' lungs for up to half a century; deaths from asbestos in Britain will continue to rise until 2016.
Nor is it confined to Britain. The World Health Organisation says ...