The Independent reports
As early as 1898, the chief inspector of factories in the UK reported that asbestos had "easily demonstrated" health risks. In Barking itself, alarm bells sounded in 1929 when the medical officer of health wrote in his annual report: "Many people in Barking are suffering from diseases of the lungs due to the inhalation of asbestos dust." By 1945, the medical officer wrote that asbestos was a "deadly and dangerous commodity" that should probably be banned.
Asbestos dust was being inhaled into the lungs where it could lie unnoticed before causing crippling illnesses such lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma which one medical professor has described as "perhaps the most terrible cancer known, in which the decline is the most cruel". 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 World Health Organisation says asbestos currently kills at least 90,000 workers every year. One report estimated the asbestos cancer epidemic could claim anywhere between five and 10 million lives before it is banned worldwide and exposure ceases.Scars, known as pleural plaques, can be a warning that victims may develop one of the fatal cancers that inhaling the lethal fibres can result in.For 21 years, sufferers of pleural plaques were compensated by their employers for the scars caused by exposure to the deadly fibres, but in 2007 this was overturned by a Law Lords ruling. Politicians and medical experts accuse the Government of pandering to the insurance lobby and claim they are now ignoring crucial new medical evidence which reveals the physical and mental toll of pleural plaques.Those with pleural plaques are 1,000 times more likely to suffer from an asbestos-related cancer than the rest of the population
Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, said the lack of compensation for pleural plaques sufferers was scandalous. "If that amount of death occurred in any other profession it would be a national scandal," he said. "It's a working-class disease and it doesn't get the attention it should do: it's a life sentence. You've got to think about the corporate interests of insurance companies and compare that with a lagger. There's no equivalent in the power game here."
Cape Asbestos factory in Barking, east London, insisted asbestos was harmless even after the factory closed. Richard Gaze, former chief scientist for Cape Asbestos, defended its record throughout the 1970s until he died of mesothelioma himself, aged 65, in 1982.Geoffrey Tweedale, an asbestos industry expert, said: "No one knows the death toll, but it's possibly in the thousands. Cape never had to release their records." Workers were told that drinking half a pint of milk would prevent illness and were left to toil in the thick dust with no masks. Dust from the building spewed on to the streets from giant fans, leaving cotton wool-like wisps to settle on the streets. The streets "looked like Christmas", residents recall. Children in Northbury School, which was adjacent to the factory, used to gather up this "snow" and throw it at each other. Peter Williams of Field Fisher Waterhouse, solicitors specialising in asbestos disease, said, "I think Cape would have known that asbestos was highly dangerous. From the people we've spoken to that worked in the factory and lived in the surrounding area, no precautions were taken and no one from Cape ever mentioned it was dangerous."
MPs and others will meet government lawyers to press for the controversial 2007 Lords decision on plaques to be challenged. Andrew Dismore MP, who is attempting for a second time to get a bill through the House of Lords which would challenge the decision, said: "It's a manifest injustice. The law treats psychological injury differently from physical injury. The insurers are obviously trying to minimise their loss and the Government also has a potential liability for some of these cases."