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Asbestos: from magic mineral to working-class killer

July 1st is Action Mesothelioma Day, an annual event in which awareness is raised about the continuing suffering caused by asbestos-related cancer. Here a member of Manchester Solidarity Federation and the Greater Manchester Asbestos Victim Support Group talks about the destructive effect asbestos has had on the lives of thousands of workers.

UK news in briefs

Government 'war games' against the working class

The Cabinet Office has reportedly been carrying out ‘war games’ to prepare for possible strike action against sweeping cut backs. Plans have centred on ensuring there’s enough scab labour available to break strikes in key sectors. 

Ministers have already suggested they will tighten Britain’s already draconian anti-strike laws in the event significant strike action breaks out. A string of recent strike ballots have been ruled unlawful in the courts, using technicalities to annul majority votes for action. Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have threated to further tighten the law “as a last resort” if union bosses don’t co-operate.

Merseyside protest at planned plant closure

Problems at work No.2: Asbestos - the undiscriminating killer

Asbestos now kills a staggering 3,000 people a year in Britain – worldwide, the death toll can only be guessed at. The first clear case of death due to asbestos appeared in the medical literature in 1924. Since then, capitalism has done all it can to hide the truth from workers. First we were told asbestos was safe, then that only blue asbestos posed a danger, then that while all asbestos is dangerous, it is only when you are exposed to large amounts. Only recently, have they finally admitted that asbestos kills and that there is no safe level of asbestos dust in the atmosphere.

Tomorrow's killers

The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations come into force on 21 May 2004, but it is already too late for the estimated 10,000 Britons per year who are expected to die from asbestosrelated diseases within the next 25 years. Already, insurance firms are setting aside funds in anticipation of claims. Equitas, set up to reinsure Lloyds of London, has set aside £3.2 billion, while Royal Sun Alliance is reported to have asbestos reserves of £800 million.

Asbestos rip-off

The plight of those suffering from asbestos related diseases is going from bad to worse (see previous Catalysts). First, Turner & Newall (T&N), once one of the biggest global asbestos companies, went into voluntary liquidation to avoid paying out compensation to asbestos victims. Then Kroll, the firm administrating T&N, started charging over £460 per hour for their services (so far their bills is £23 million). Meanwhile, the US administrators have been charging $75 million a year.

Asbestos death - of an office worker

A health-conscious pensioner died after developing the asbestos cancer mesothelioma, decades after breathing in asbestos from the clothes of shipyard workers. Alison Corbett worked for just seven years in the offices of a shipyard more than 40 years ago. Ms Corbett's only contact with asbestos workers was when they came into the office with wages queries and other enquires. This tragic death demonstrates yet again that even limited exposure to asbestos can kill (see previous Cats).

Asbestos: The silent killer in schools

Some 15 teachers a year are dying of asbestos related cancer. The Health and Safety Executive released figures stating that between 1991 and 2000 147 teachers died from the untreatable cancer mesothelioma. When it took into account education assistants, nursery nurses and university lecturers the figures doubled. These figures could even be higher if other support staff, such as caretakers, maintenance staff and cleaners, are taken into account.

The history of asbestos is one of cover up and lies in the name of profit. The dangers of asbestos have been known about for over a hundred years. But the profits to be made from asbestos production ensured that the truth about the deadly nature of asbestos was withheld.

Have your say : A Killer at Work

Though asbestos in now banned in Britain, many buildings we live and work in today predate the ban. For example, about 90% of schools still contain asbestos. As a result, thousands of people are dying, and will continue to die, from asbestos related diseases which very often are not manifest until many years, even decades, after exposure.

Asbestos is a fibrous substance found in seams between layers of rock. The fibres are strong, flexible, and will not burn below 1000 ºC. There are different types but these days 95% of all asbestos mined is white asbestos, or Chrysotile.

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