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Asbestos Pollution and Mesothelioma

Orders of the Day — Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 2:09 pm on 25th November 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fallon.]

Photo of John Battle John Battle , Leeds West 2:30 pm, 25th November 1988

Yesterday evening I visited Mr. Walter Evans, a pensioner living in my constituency, who, at 68 years of age, is seriously ill from mesothelioma, which is an asbestos-related cancer. In 1976, he lost a lung. For the past seven weeks he has been struggling to breathe with the help of a nebulizer machine beside his bed in the front room of his home. Mr. Evans had the misfortune to live in Old row, Armley, in my constituency, from 1939 until the 1970s. He lived close to the asbestos factory of J W Roberts. He can tell the story of how his wife used to wipe the greyish white dust off the window sills of their home at 9.30 am, and that an hour later, if the machines at Roberts were blowing out dust, there would be another layer of dust half an inch thick.

A neighbour of his grew up in Arley place, which is nearby, and he is now 44 years of age. Both his father, who died at 50, and his mother at 53, were certified as dying of lung cancer. In the case of his mother, there was tearing of the stomach lining. He described how as young children they played in the dust. They scooped up the dust into piles with their hands to kick the little mounds down, he said. Others who went to the nearby Armley clock primary school described how the playground was always covered in dust. Children wrote their names in the dust. The girls marked out the hopscotch squares in the dust.

Another resident, Mrs. Shires, recalled: If you walked right behind the factory it was like cotton. It was in the cracks in the pavement behind the factory. Mrs. Annie Muscroft of Nunnington terrace has said: It used to be blue-white. We used to sweep this blue dust up. It was blue fluffy stuff. Jack Peat of Nunnington terrace has said: The dust was always there while I was at school, lying on walls or window ledges if it had been damp. It was like snow fall. Mrs. Annie Hall of Arley place recalls: I used to get up in the morning and the other side of the street always had a layer of fine dust with footmarks on it from the early morning workers. That dust is now proving to have been the cause of mesothelioma. It is a comparatively rare but deadly cancer of the lining of the lung and stomach. The only known cause of it is exposure, even for the briefest of periods, to asbestos dust. The disease can lie dormant for 50 years. There is no known cure. Once the tumour develops, a life is usually shortened to death within two years. In an area of west Leeds, Armley, within a half-mile radius of the Roberts asbestos factory, hundreds of residents in the surrounding terraced streets, which run right up against the factory walls, regularly encountered dust from the Roberts factory until it was closed in 1958, after operating for 70 years.

We are indebted to Mr. Richard Taylor, a reporter with the Yorkshire Evening Post, who, in the best traditions of investigative journalism, carefuly followed up routine coverage of the Leeds coroner's court reports about four years ago. He detected and traced a pattern in the past few years of an incredibly high incidence of mesothelioma deaths in Armley around the Roberts factory. A series of revealing articles were published in the Yorkshire Evening Post in the past year, which I have forwarded to the key Government Departments. Richard Taylor put a magnifying glass over the densely populated inner-city area near the Roberts factory. He examined death certificates and interviewed relatives and neighbours of the deceased. His evidence showed an incredibly high incidence of mesothelioma, and that was backed by the Leeds coroner's records.

Coroner Gill identified 22 deaths from mesothelioma between 1977 and 1988. There are now 29 identified cases. Being revealed is a pattern of death from mesothelioma for people who lived close to the Roberts factory. Coroner Gill commented:

It was only as a trend over a number of years that a more precise picture appeared. I have very few other cases from other areas of Leeds. It is significant that virtually all the cases we have come from that area. Mr. Alfred Herod moved to Arksey terrace with his parents in 1936 and lived there until 1948. His wife recalls that as a child he used to get a good hiding for coming home covered in dust. They moved from Armley in 1964. He fell ill and died in June 1965, aged 34.

Mr. Ronald Huby lived a few doors away from Mr. Herod from 1932, when he was two years old, until he married in 1953. Like the others, he lived with the dust, never imagining that it could cause harm. In 1976, he began to experience difficulty in breathing and died in 1978, aged 48, of mesothelioma. Before he died he urged his wife to press for compensation, but neither she nor Mr. Herod received any. Mrs. Herod was refused legal aid and, like many others, could not face the prospect of lengthy and expensive legal proceedings against a factory that had closed.

The Yorkshire Evening Post names many others who have died in their late 50s or early 60s—for most of whom the only connection with asbestos was through living close to the Roberts factory. It appears from the evidence of such an intense mesothelioma cluster that the factory had, and is still having, a lethal impact on the people in its neighbourhood. One of Britain's leading experts on asbestos said that the Roberts factory is proving to be one of the most environmentally dangerous in the country. Families have paid, and are still paying, a high price for living near it.

Although mesothelioma is increasingly appearing on the death certificates of people known to have lived near the Roberts factory—and the disease can be dormant for decades before it strikes—deaths from contact with asbestos dust are not recorded as such. There are many death certificates that state bronchial pneumonia, tuberculosis or emphysema. Most deaths do not have an inquest or a post mortem, so many people may have died of mesothelioma unacknowledged.

The facts about asbestos have been known for nearly a century. In 1894 a factory inspectorate report provided the first warnings that exposure to asbestos could mean health danger and premature deaths. By 1931, the danger of asbestos was so apparent that the Government passed asbestos regulations directing that there should be no asbestos dust in the workplace. By 1935, the link between lung cancer and asbestos was clearly recognised. In 1969, the Government introduced new regulations fixing what were then called "safe dust levels." As we know, in 1985 the Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations, the Asbestos Licensing Regulations and the Asbestos Products Safety Regulations all came into effect.

Recently, I received a helpful statement from the Under-Secretary of State at the former Department of Health and Social Security, the noble Lord Skelmersdale. In response to my letter, dated 15 March, he said: Research supports an association between residence and school attendance but no occupational exposure near asbestos factories and malignant mesothelioma. In the particular context of Armley, the greater awareness of this condition by physicians, surgeons and pathologists may well contribute to the number of cases observed. I agree with that, but must challenge the next sentence, which stated: It was only subsequent to the early 1960s that mesothelioma hazard associated with asbestos exposure was recognised. The JW Roberts factory in Armley was a world producer of asbestos-based goods for 70 years until operations ceased on site in 1958. It was one of the four founder members of Turner and Newall Ltd., now known as T and N plc. This was a well-established major local employer, but by March 1928 Dr. H. De Carle Woodcock—a well-known lung specialist—drew attention, at the inquest of Walter Leadbeater of Aviary mount in Armley, to the inhalation of asbestos dust as the cause of fibrosis of the lungs.

In August 1928 the Leeds coroner adjourned an inquest on Margaret Marden who died at the age of 34. She worked at Roberts and her symptoms pointed to asbestos poisoning. It is reported that the inquest was adjourned so that the coroner could pay a personal visit to the factory and obtain expert medical opinion. At the same inquest the assistant police surgeon, Dr. John Kelly, pointed out that it would take 10 to 12 years for asbestos disease to manifest itself.

In February 1929 Mrs. Lily Hensley, aged 41, died and the coroner suggested that the jury return a verdict of death from the inhalation of asbestos dust. Mrs. Hensley had worked at the Roberts factory for 20 years. At the time of her death her mother reported that steps had been taken at the asbestos works to prevent the dust floating about, but that was after her daughter had ceased to work there. Therefore, the danger to employees from asbestos dust was acknowledged many years before 1960.

JW Roberts still exists as a constituent part of T and N plc. In its 1987 annual report and accounts there is an interesting note to the accounts on page 32: The company and certain subsidiaries are among many companies named as defendants in a large number of court actions concerned with alleged asbestos-related diseases in the USA and are among a number of defendants to claims in the UK from employees and former employees. Because of the slow onset of these diseases the directors expect that similar claims will be made in future years. Mesothelioma, as a result of exposure to asbestos dust, is not an "alleged asbestos-related disease"; it is a proven one.

The notes to the 1987 annual accounts also include the following budget line on page 23: Asbestos-related disease claims, including legal costs for 1987—£5·1 million". How much of this has been paid to former employees and their families? I do not know, but claims have been made and there are rumours of out-of-court settlements. But local people who did not work at Roberts, whose relatives have died from mesothelioma as a result of living nearby or who may now have the disease, want to know if they can claim any recompense from the company.

In reply to my inquiry to the Lord Chancellor's Department, the issue of damages at civil law was raised. The reply reads: I am unaware of any case in which people who live or have lived near a factory, as opposed to workers at the factory, have received damages for diseases caused by asbestos. However, there is nothing in law which would prohibit such people from bringing a claim for negligence against the proprietor. The success or failure of such a claim would depend, as it does in all negligence actions, on the answers to such questions as whether the company knew or should have known of the dangers; whether they took all reasonably practicable steps to limit or remove the dangers; whether it was foreseeable that the plaintiff would develop the disease, and whether the disease was in fact caused by the defendant's breach of duties.A further question to be considered would be whether the claim was barred under the Limitation Act. It would no doubt be easier for an employee to prove a case of negligence, particularly since there are statutory duties on an employer towards his employees which he does not owe to others. It is precisely those "others" that I represent in the House. People such as Mr. Evans face difficulties in even considering taking out court action against T and N plc. It is also clear that the cases of some former employees have dragged on so long that the dying person has never lived to see the end of it. In the light of that, I appeal to the Minister to use his powers to initiate a full-scale inquiry into the mesothelioma deaths of people who lived in Armley near the Roberts factory. Will the Minister ask the Health and Safety Executive to prepare what I think is known as an "occasional report" as a starting point, and use it as a focus to initiate a Government inquiry that co-ordinates the resources within the range of Government Departments, particularly the Department of Employment, drawing on the expertise of that executive, the Department of Health, the Department of the Environment and the Lord Chancellor's Department?

I appreciate that the scale of this environmental pollution is much wider than the remit of the Health and Safety Executive. The full picture of local residents who live there and who have died or moved away and of the children who attended the Armley clock primary school still needs to be compiled from electoral rolls, school registers and health records. Could not the Department of Health, for example, be asked to send a circular to all coroners and health authorities to seek out recorded deaths from mesothelioma with a view to finding those who lived close to the Roberts factory at Armley? Only then can the extent of the tragic impact of its presence be properly assessed.

The scientific link between mesothelioma and asbestos dust from Roberts needs to be firmly established beyond doubt from contemporary history and medical evidence. Nor should the dormant period of the disease be a barrier to seeking recompense against a factory that closed in 1958, but which is part of a continuing and successful company with a turnover of £961 million and whose profits before taxation in 1987 increased by 73 per cent. to £77·3 million.

The relatives of those who have died and who are dying seek recompense for the painful shortening of life by mesothelioma. They know, as is acknowledged in the Turner and Newall annual report, that the company faces huge claims for compensation from the Chase Manhattan bank and the Prudential Insurance company in the United States, but they do not have the means to stake their claim as those companies do. They want to know how they, too, can be included in the note to the accounts in Turner and Newall's annual report headed, "Asbestos-related disease claims." I urge the Minister to initiate an inquiry and to ensure that all its documentation and findings are made available as evidence to be used in any civil action that may take place.

Scientific developments based on experiment will always include risks and tragic discoveries. There is a tragic irony in the picture of Lady Asbestos as a Greek goddess and symbol of protection which was first used in 1918 in publicity material produced by Turner Brothers Asbestos. The tragedy is that that shield of protection against the elements has proved to be such a lethal weapon, killing thousands painfully and prematurely.

A key question, highlighted in the Lord Chancellor's letter, remains and that is whether the company knew or should have known of the danger. On 6 December a Yorkshire Television documentary, "First Tuesday", which has conducted major research on the tragic legacy of the Armley asbestos factory, may address this question. For my part, I frequently walk and drive the streets around that old factory building, visiting my constituents. I cannot believe that those who owned and ran Roberts can have gone in and out without seeing the dust everywhere on the surrounding streets and pavements. If they knew that their workers within had to be protected from the asbestos dust, how could they have ignored the position of their neighbours who lived with that dust outside? It was not rendered neutral or innocuous as it left their premises.

If they knew, why did they knowingly continue to ask not only their employees but local residents for a generation to pay the price with their lives for the profits of continued asbestos production? Is not the price of a life, albeit by a delayed reaction, too high a price to pay? Should not the company be responsible for that deadly legacy? The Armley asbestos tragedy cannot remain private and hidden because it is not yet over.

I urge the Minister to ask for a Health and Safety Executive report, to initiate a full-scale inquiry and to use his powers to ensure that all documentation can be made available in any action relating to claims for recompense by those who have inherited that deadly legacy, be they my constituents or—because they may have moved from Armley—the constituents of other hon. Members.

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls , Teignbridge 2:50 pm, 25th November 1988

I compliment the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) on the way in which he has brought this important subject before the House and I extend my personal thanks for his courtesy in giving me an idea of the way in which he intended to raise the matter.

The hon. Gentleman laid out a catalogue of misery and death with which he and his constituents have had to live. I am all too keenly aware that, whatever the cause of those deaths may have been, even a debate on the Floor of the House may seem an inadequate reaction.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned several important subjects that I shall do my best to cover. I fully appreciate that compensation for people whose health has been affected by such circumstances is a grave and major problem. Equally, nothing that I say could make up for the loss of good health or the suffering or death of a husband, wife, parent or child. It is possible that the families of those who have died as a result of living near an asbestos factory may be able to obtain compensation by claiming damages at civil law. If any of the hon. Gentleman's constituents have not already done so, I urge them to take legal advice.

The hon. Gentleman will accept that I cannot pass judgment on the individual circumstances of the Roberts factory in Leeds. The problems are compounded by the time lag of the disease and by the fact that sometimes such firms are no longer in business. The point that was made by the Lord Chancellor's Department is that, although it is easier to prove a case where statutory regulations exist, it does not mean that a case cannot be proved according to the general law. I make no apology for repeating that, if any of the hon. Gentleman's constituents have not yet taken legal advice—I cannot pass judgment on why a legal aid application may have been refused—they should do so now.

Employees who have contracted an asbestos-related disease during their work and whose employers have ceased to trade, can claim compensation under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers' Protection) Act 1979.

The hon. Gentleman suggested conducting an inquiry to identify former residents of Armley who may be affected by the disease. I understand his reasons for suggesting that, but I wonder how useful it could be. First, it would be almost impossible to conduct such an exercise. The logistics of tracing and identifying such people are formidable. Not only was the factory in operation for more than 50 years, but it ceased operation more than 30 years ago. By now, people who lived in Armley during that period could be spread not just over the country but over the four corners of the globe. Furthermore, what could such an inquiry achieve? As the hon. Gentleman said, this tragic disease is incurable. Mounting a well-publicised search to identify potential sufferers may cause much needless concern among former residents, many of whom will be elderly.

I take this opportunity to address the long and complex story of asbestos, what we have learnt about its dangers and the controls that have been applied to its use. There is the related and broader question of protection for members of the public who live close to factories or other places where potentially dangerous activities are carried out.

Asbestos is a useful material, not least because it is chemically inert. It does not react easily with other substances and is not easily damaged or destroyed. For a long time it was also assumed to be biologically inert in its effects on the human body. Awareness of those effects grew slowly. That was partly because the cancers that we now know to be caused by asbestos do not usually appear until many years after the sufferer was exposed. Furthermore, they are often indistinguishable from cancers caused by other substances. That made asbestos hard to spot as the hazard that we know it is.

Those facts are important in the case of the Roberts works at Armley where production ceased in 1958. To understand fully the situation, we have to look at what was believed about asbestos at the time. Evidence that asbestos was harmful accumulated during the 1920s and 1930s. But attention was focused on its ability to produce asbestosis, a type of lung tissue damage, something like coal miners' dust disease. There was no suspicion that it could also cause cancers.

To protect process workers against the risk of asbestosis, the 1931 regulations were introduced. Their main requirement was that workers' exposure to asbestos dust should be controlled by the use of exhaust ventilation equipment or protective clothing and breathing apparatus. It was still believed that there was a threshold level of exposure below which the risk vanished, and some processes were excluded from the 1931 regulations on that ground. The regulations, then, were based on the evidence available at the time, and that was the legislation that existed to protect the employees at the Roberts works up to the time of its closure in 1958.

The regulations did not extend to members of the public, and people living in the neighbourhood were covered only by the Public Health Act 1936 and civil law generally. That Act empowers local authorities to deal with statutory nuisance, including dust prejudicial to the health of or a nuisance to the inhabitants of the neighbourhood.

It is possible that there were escapes of dust from the Roberts works but, even if heavy by today's standards, they would almost certainly not have been judged prejudicial to health at the time. That is because the health risk was thought to be asbestosis, and it is highly improbable that dust levels in the open environment would ever be high enough to cause that disease. It is even hard to say whether the dust levels would have been considered a nuisance, but in any case steps taken to deal with mere nuisance would not have eliminated what we now know to be the real health risk.

The hon. Gentleman says that many of his constituents suffered from mesothelioma. That would suggest that blue asbestos, the sort most closely associated with mesothelioma, was being used. That is quite possible, although we do not know exactly what was being done at the factory. Nor do we have any data about actual asbestos exposure for either employees or members of the public nearby. At the time no one would have thought it worth collecting. To make matters worse, we cannot even check what might have happened by looking at factory inspectorate records for the period, because records from so long ago are not kept.

Since then, as many people will know, enormous changes have taken place. During the 1960s the link between asbestos and lung cancer became clearer and the 1931 regulations were replaced by the Asbestos Regulations 1969. However, those regulations were still confined to the protection of factory workers, and they still embodied the idea of a threshold level of exposure below which nothing more need be done. The regulations themselves did not specify the threshold, but separate control limits were set and the regulations were used to enforce those limits. It was not long before it began to appear that even those standards were not good enough. Crucially, it was realised that asbestos-induced lung cancer, and mesothelioma can both be caused by relatively low exposure.

With hindsight, of course, we can now see that the dust that escaped from the Roberts factory, and that may or may not have been considered a nuisance at that time, was sufficient to cause those diseases. But that had not been established in the years when the factory was in operation.

In 1976 the Health and Safety Commission set up the Advisory Committee on Asbestos, which reported in 1979. It recommended, among other things, that the assumption that there was a safe threshold should be dropped, and that control should be aimed at reducing exposure, as far as reasonably practicable. The control limits for white and brown asbestos were reduced. In 1983 the HSC called for another review of the medical evidence and the control limit for white asbestos was reduced again.

Nowadays, in contrast to what I said earlier, there would be no doubt in anyone's mind that asbestos dust was prejudicial to health and a statutory nuisance. I mentioned the possibility that blue asbestos had been used at the Roberts works, and its links with mesothelioma. Since the beginning of 1986 the use of both blue and brown asbestos has been prohibited altogether by the Asbestos (Prohibitions) Regulations. In fact, the control of exposure to blue asbestos had become so strict that its use had ceased long before.

I should emphasise that the dust emissions which seem to have been occurring at the Armley factory in Leeds could not happen under today's regime. One final area in which asbestos can cause concern is the demolition of buildings that have contained asbestos or an asbestos process in the past. Asbestos removal can be just as worrying. As well as being subject to all the legislation that I have mentioned, anyone now doing such work has to be licensed under the Asbestos (Licensing) Regulations 1983.

I have tried in my few remarks to give the background in a way that I hope will assist the hon. Gentleman. Anyone who listened to the debate must have been impressed by the detailed care that he gave the subject. If there are points that we need to pursue in correspondence, I shall be delighted to do so when I have had a chance to read his speech in Hansard.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.