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Magic mineral to killer dust: the UK Trades Union Congress figures reveal 18,000 deaths from asbestos in four years

May 2001
Sheila Pantry, OBE

Recently the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC) announced that over the last four years, eighteen thousand people have died in Great Britain as a result of working with asbestos, according to a new TUC report. This is 12 people every day and more than the fourteen thousand people killed on the roads since 1997 by road traffic accidents.

About a third of these deaths result from mesothelioma, with most of the rest caused by lung cancer. Deaths in each region of Great Britain since 1997 are as follows:

Scotland 1800
Wales 564
South West England 2040
Greater London 1800
South East England 4596
East Anglia 1488
Midlands 2352
Yorkshire and Humberside 1632
North West 1872
Northern England 1344

Mapping the misery of asbestos

The TUC's report Mapping the misery of asbestos contains a series of league tables showing the asbestos hotspots - the counties and local authority areas that have seen the most deaths from asbestos since 1997. The TUC report was released to coincide with International Workers' Memorial Day - 28 April 2001, which this year has been used by the TUC and trade unions around the world to remember those who have already died from working with asbestos and to make the case for action to prevent more deaths in the future.

Every year in the UK 4,500 people die from asbestos-related diseases, and by 2020, it has been estimated that the substance will be responsible for over 10,000 deaths a year. Mapping the misery of asbestos reveals that no part of Britain is immune from asbestos-related deaths, with most victims living in areas traditionally associated with shipbuilding, manufacturing, railway engineering, and the docks. Based on the death rates per million, Tyne and Wear is home to the highest asbestos death toll. Shipbuilding and its asbestos legacy have been responsible for 768 deaths since 1997.

On the south coast, Devon features highly. It is the second hardest hit English county, with the dockyards of Plymouth contributing towards its 612 deaths in the last four years. The docks in London's East End - into which much of the UK's asbestos was imported - also register as one of the fatal fibres' hotspots. Barking and Dagenham (which also had an asbestos factory, increasing the risk to local workers) has seen over 120 deaths, Havering over 100, and Newham 80, and the capital as a whole has recorded 1,800 asbestos fatalities - a death a day since 1997.

Workers' Memorial Day is the day when we 'mourn for the dead, fight for the living', drawing attention to the plight of the 335,000 workers worldwide who die every year as a result of their work, but also campaigning to prevent further deaths, injuries and diseases.

Bans around the world

In 1999, the UK joined many other countries in Europe to ban the importation, sale or new use of the last remaining form of asbestos allowed - white asbestos or chrysotile. The EU has banned asbestos as from 2005, and all the countries joining the EU from now on will be covered by that ban. The Canadian Government (much of the world's asbestos is mined in Quebec) have already failed once to overturn the ban through the World Trade Organisation, but they have appealed that decision.

Bans are rare outside Europe, although Saudi Arabia and Chile have followed the European example, and Australia is likely to do so soon. The TUC and trade unions across the world are now calling for a global ban on asbestos. The British Asbestos Newsletter and the Secretariat have done much campaigning over the years.

Call for a public register

Despite the ban, there is a century's worth of asbestos already in Britain's buildings. Repair and maintenance workers, and the people who work in buildings where asbestos-containing materials are in poor repair, are still at risk. The TUC are calling for a public register of asbestos and a duty on employers and building owners to manage the risks in partnership with unions and safety representatives.

As well as preventing further exposure to asbestos, the TUC are also wanting action to support those who have already been exposed, and say that Health programmes are needed to encourage and assist workers who have been exposed to give up smoking - because that more than doubles the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease. Measures to help sufferers, such as the MacMillan Nurses Information Project, need support. And there is a need for more research into possible cures for the cancers asbestos causes, like mesothelioma.

Magic mineral to killer dust: a timely publication

Asbestos was once known as the 'magic mineral' because of its ability to withstand flames. Yet since the 1960s, it has become a notorious and feared 'killer dust' that is responsible for thousands of deaths and an epidemic that continues into the new millennium. Magic mineral to killer dust is the first comprehensive history of the UK asbestos health problem, which provides an in-depth look at the occupational health experience of one of the world's leading asbestos companies - British Asbestos giant, Turner and Newall. Based on a vast company archive recently released in American litigation, the book gives an unprecedented insight into all aspects of the asbestos hazard and covers dust control, workmen's compensation, government regulation, and the development of medical knowledge. In particular it looks at the role of inspectors, trades unionists and highlights the failures in regulation that allowed the commercial development of a material that was known to be lethal since at least 1900.


Magic Mineral to Killer Dust: Turner & Newall and the Asbestos Hazard, by Geoffrey Tweedale, Reader in the Centre for Business History, Manchester Metropolitan University.

Published by Oxford University Press
ISBN 0199243999


Other web sites for further information

Trades Union Congress

British Asbestos Newsletter

Hazards Magazine

Sheila Pantry is Editor/Compiler of Health and Safety World. She also runs an information consultancy specialising in health and safety information, particularly computerised information, and is a partner publisher with SilverPlatter Information Ltd