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Action Mesothelioma Day 2024

Today, is Action Mesothelioma Day, a day for remembrance for those who have been affected by mesothelioma and to raise awareness for future generations of the dangers of asbestos. 

Posted on 05 July 2024

This years’ AMD is particularly poignant with 2024 marking the centenary since the death of Nellie Kershaw, the first recorded asbestosis death in England.   

Nellie was a textile worker in Rochdale, employed by Turner Brothers Asbestos.  

Having started working for Turners in 1917 she developed breathing problems three years later and died aged just 33 on 14 March 1924.  Despite the vehement denial of any liability by Turners, the coroner for Rochdale engaged a pathologist to conduct a post-mortem examination which confirmed the asbestos was beyond a reasonable doubt, the primary cause of the fibrosis of the lungs and therefore of death".

Nellie’s death led to a Parliamentary inquiry and the passing of the Asbestos Industry Regulations 1931.  Her employer, later known as the asbestos manufacturer, Turner & Newall, employed thousands of workers who were affected by asbestos poisoning before it went out of business in the late 1990s. 

Have lessons really been learnt in the past 100 years since Nellie Kershaw’s death? We may have come a long way, but given that a century has passed, there is still a long way to go before the terrible asbestos legacy is behind us. 

For years after Nellie Kershaw’s death, the common view was that asbestos was only dangerous from heavy, prolonged, exposure and many workers continued to endure the deadly dust every day at work. Decades later, statistics revealed increasing death rates due to those past exposures, which typically take many years to be revealed in devastating lung diseases.   

The 1960s saw a watershed in the knowledge of the risks of asbestos when two leading scientists, Muriel Newhouse and Hilda Thompson, published a seminal paper in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine, highlighting the risk of the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma, from low level asbestos exposure. 

Becoming front page news in the Sunday Times on 31 October 1965 with the headline “Scientists track down killer dust disease” there could no longer be any doubt as to the devastating consequences of exposure, even from just living near a factory or from washing asbestos-contaminated clothes. 

Despite this knowledge, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of asbestos continued to be imported into the UK through the 1960s and 1970s, not only affecting those who worked with it at the time, but also storing up a ticking timebomb of a hazard, as it was used extensively in buildings where future generations would later work. 

Inevitably, with the reckless use of asbestos in the past, the 1970s and 1980s saw growing numbers of asbestos deaths, reaching hundreds per year. The devastation of the asbestos legacy was laid bare in the 1982 Yorkshire TV documentary “Alice – A Fight For Life” which followed mesothelioma victim Alice Jefferson, a former worker from Cape’s Acre Mill asbestos factory in Hebden Bridge.   

Alice died just a month after filming ended, but the documentary ignited public consciousness. Over 40 years after Alice’ death, the former asbestos manufacturer, Cape, continues to trade, but the death of Alice, and countless others like her, has led the Asbestos Support Groups Forum UK to lead their #CapeMustPay campaign demanding that Cape Intermediate Holdings (formerly Cape PLC) donate £10 million to fund medical research to find a cure for mesothelioma. 

Incredibly it took 20 years after Muriel Newhouse and Hilda Thompson’s warnings, before the first real asbestos ban in 1985, with an end to importing of blue and brown asbestos. 

It was not until 1999, 75 years after Nellie Kershaw’s death, that asbestos was finally banned in England. By this time, deaths from mesothelioma were in the thousands and had given rise to a growing movement of asbestos victims support groups, made up from a combination of victims and their families, campaigners and trade unionists.

In 2005 the groups co-ordinated in the Asbestos Victims Support Group Forum UK, a leading movement that continues to successfully fight for the rights of asbestos victims to this day. 

Twenty-five years after it was banned, the shadow of asbestos still hangs heavily over us. The slowness to react to such an obvious hazard over decades, combined with complacency by countless employers, has led to asbestos being the biggest cause of work-related deaths in the country. 

Currently there are more than 5,000 deaths per year from asbestos related disease, with some estimates as high as 20,000 deaths per year.   

The devastating human impact gave rise to the establishment of Mesothelioma UK in 2004, a leading national charity which provides specialist support from Mesothelioma Clinical Nurse Specialists across the country. 

Previously seen as a disease of the male workforce, mesothelioma deaths in women have risen steadily to over 400 per year. Recent years have also seen growing concerns over children, teachers and public health workers, with asbestos present in 80 per cent of schools and 94 per cent of hospitals and clear reported cases of schoolchildren, teachers, doctors and nurses developing mesothelioma.  

The risks of asbestos can no longer be viewed as a purely occupational hazard, but must be seen as something that can never be considered safe, even when “in situ” in buildings. 

So as we mark AMD 2024, 100 years after Nellie Kershaw’s death, what more can be done?   

Firstly, asbestos must be eradicated. We have known for decades there is no safe level of asbestos, and only a complete elimination of asbestos will bring safety for future generations. 

Secondly, we need continuing commitment to the support groups and charities who provide unwavering help to the victims and families devastated by asbestos diseases.

We highlight and commend the incredible work of the Asbestos Victims Support Group Forum UK and all the UK asbestos support groups, as well as the national charity Mesothelioma UK. These organisations are at the forefront of fighting for better treatments and a future free from asbestos-related diseases. 

As lawyers we provide a commitment to fight for legal redress and accountability for asbestos victims.  Just as Nellie Kershaw faced denials of liability 100 years ago, many of our clients face similar battles now, and we must continue fighting to achieve justice for them and their families. 

Today, we remember those we have lost, support those battling mesothelioma and reaffirm our commitment to a future where asbestos no longer threatens public health. Together, we can make a difference.