I wrote the other day about mesothelioma, that extremely nasty form of cancer which can be caused by asbestos inhalation, and that particularly affects the membranes of the lung, though it can damage other membranes as well. I’ve been reading up a bit more on the subject now and it’s appalling to discover that the dangers of working with asbestos were established in the 1930s, and the knowledge that asbestos workers were at risk had been known since the turn of the century.
Why did it take so long then, for companies to stop using asbestos? Asbestos was used as insulation on pipes and boilers, as fire retardants, as thermal insulation in blankets, mattresses and gloves, in roofing, weatherboarding, shuttering and cladding, in plumbing and heating systems, in floor tiles and PVC vinyl flooring, as insulating board and in the brake pads of cars, lorries, buses and trams. We were surrounded by the stuff. The moral viewpoint of the companies using it in all these forms must have been tainted by the profit they were making. Why otherwise would they have continued to use it when they knew so many people would suffer?
Perhaps at first they thought their lack of concern would never be followed up on, and that the workers in particular wouldn’t have the gumption to face up to them and demand restitution for what was being done to their bodies. And they were right as far as that went. Workers were in no position to complain, even if they were aware of the damage they were suffering. The system relied on the companies being able get away with it, on one hand, and the workers being largely unaware of their danger, on the other.
Workers would have to suffer not just mesothelioma, but asbestosis, in which fibrosis progressively scars the lungs; calcification of their lungs, and the thickening of the lung’s lining - along with lung cancer - in ever-increasing numbers before society began to take notice.
Workers in a wide range of jobs would be affected, from men (and it was invariably men) working in power stations, men doing painting and decorating, men in ship yards, roofing and construction, men working in railways, as motor mechanics, joiners and laggers, as heating engineers, and of course, men producing the asbestos itself. Families would be affected in vast numbers, as husbands, fathers and sons died painful deaths.
Now, of course, since the 1980s, the problem has come to a head. It’s far too late for the men involved - many of them have long since died and the rest are virtually incurable - but legal companies around the world these days are battling for the men’s families in an attempt to redress the failures of companies to take precautions on behalf of their workers for more than a century. Even with the best of lawyers it’s a long, hard battle.