Issue 28: Summer 1997
Table of Contents:
1. UK To Ban Chrysotile
2. Asbestos Prosecutions
3. Contaminated Land
4. T&N plc: News
5. News Round-up
June Hancock: A Remembrance
"It proves however small you are you can fight and however big you can lose," said June Hancock when she and Evelyn Margereson defeated the multinational T&N plc in an English court. The cases, which involved environmental contamination by a former asbestos factory, were the first to result in plaintiffs' verdicts. Despite illness, Mrs. Hancock had pursued her case diligently through the High Court and later the Court of Appeal. Her MP John Battle had supported the struggle for compensation and commented that: "She had heroic courage and needed it to take on T&N... June showed courageous selflessness in carrying a campaign through against the odds not for herself but for other people." Since the verdict, forty local people have received compensation from T&N. June Hancock died from mesothelioma in a West Yorkshire hospital on July 21.
1. UK To Ban Chrysotile
It is looking increasingly likely that the UK will impose a ban on the import and use of chrysotile within the next two years. Pressure for a ban is growing from a wide variety of sources including politicians, trade unions, business and trade associations, asbestos victims groups and lobbyists. Two weeks after a landslide electoral victory, the new Prime Minister expressed his determination to "deal effectively with the problems of asbestos." In mid-June, the government's asbestos strategy was outlined by Environment Minister Angela Eagle who told the House of Commons that "a mechanism for introducing a domestic ban on the import, supply and use of asbestos" was being investigated by the Health and Safety Commission (HSC). On June 26, Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton, a government spokesperson on the Environment in the House of Lords, told peers that: "the Government now believes that the time has come to get rid of the remaining uses of asbestos. It is time to seek to ban white asbestos." Although campaigning groups in the UK have been calling for a complete ban on asbestos for many years efforts have, on the whole, remained un-coordinated at a national level. In an attempt to maximize the effectiveness of these groups and to increase the flow of information, the Trades Union Congress invited union officials, anti-asbestos campaigners, MPs and MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) to form the core of the Ban Asbestos Working Group. The Group's initial meeting took place at Congress House in London on July 25. A feasibility study for an asbestos ban was presented by Clydeside Action on Asbestos during the three hour session. A second meeting has been scheduled for September.
It is clear that the new Labour government would like to achieve a domestic ban within the context of a European ban; to this end it is interesting to report that the Health and Safety Executive has seconded a senior official to DGIII of the European Commission to work on the legislation which would be needed. The HSC also envisages a comprehensive prohibition and plans to "develop proposals for the prohibition of white asbestos and... pursue a European Union approach on this" during 1997/98. On July 2, MEPs, trade unionists, representatives from industry and the EC met in Brussels to explore the possibilities for a European ban. Delegates were told that within twelve to eighteen months a leading European car manufacturer will have eliminated the need for asbestos from its entire range of vehicles and spares. Some months ago, the European Commission contracted an independent body to undertake an up-to-date evaluation of the health risks of asbestos. The assessment which Environmental Resources Management (ERM) submitted to DGIII in June accepted that there is a dose dependent relationship between exposure to chrysotile and the occurrence of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. According to the consultants "no threshold level of exposure has been identified below which chrysotile asbestos does not pose carcinogenic risks." The dangers from para-occupational exposure of construction and maintenance workers were recognized as on-going and serious. A preliminary draft of a report: The Dangers of Asbestos for Workers and the Environment for the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe echoed these sentiments, recommending that "the use of asbestos should be eliminated where current technological knowledge permits." The EU Economic and Social Committee has commissioned an asbestos report which should be available by December, 1997.
2. Asbestos Prosecutions
Anecdotal evidence indicates that government agencies are becoming more aggressive in their pursuit of asbestos polluters. During the last few months, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has brought a string of prosecutions against retailers, demolition firms, local councils and contractors which have resulted in substantial fines. In May, Birmingham Magistrates fined the House of Fraser (Stores) Limited £24,000 after the company admitted infringements of health and safety regulations which arose from an incident during which employees and contractors were exposed to amosite and chrysotile contained in pipe lagging. Also in May, Cranegates Ltd. was fined £5,000 for dangerous working practices during the demolition of the Holy Cross School in Crawley. An HSE inspector reported a number of safety problems on the site last November: "The workers were stripping asbestos from pipes in the boiler house. An asbestos filter and fan were not sealed properly which allowed asbestos fibres to escape... The decontamination unit in a caravan was not suitable. The water and electricity was not working, so the showers couldn't be used." Incorrect removal of asbestos plasterboard at the former Coats Viyella factory in Blackburn led to a £3000 fine for Yorkshire company Temban Roofing. The company admitted breaching regulations but claimed that it "had asked a third party to carry out the work on their behalf but it failed to act on instructions."
Prosecutions brought by the HSE were also upheld against Lewisham, Surrey County and Leeds City Councils in July. Lewisham Council was fined £7,000 plus £1146 costs by Greenwich Magistrates for exposing council staff to amosite contained in the structure of the social services department over a period of several years. The council is now compiling a register of all its buildings which includes information about asbestos. Surrey County Council received a penalty of £9000 from North West Surrey Magistrates for uncontrolled stripping of asbestos pipe insulation at a school in Camberley. The contractors were fined £2,000 for infringements under the Health and Safety At Work Act (HSWA) and the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations 1994 (CDM) plus £2,372 costs. Leeds City Council received a £10,000 fine plus £1175 costs for contravening a section of the HSWA during renovations at Pool-in-Wharfedale Church of England Primary School in 1996. Although a survey carried out by the Council in 1994 noted that suspended ceilings were in need of further analysis, this information was not given to the contractors before work was started. An HSE spokesperson said: "There was no supervision from Leeds City Council while the work was carried out." The Council has announced that: "Future asbestos removal will be done by our own asbestos unit which is highly trained and which works to rigorous standards." L & W Insulations Ltd., the firm contracted by Leeds City Council to undertake the insulation work, and John Morrell, a company director, pleaded guilty to four offences including attempted disposal of controlled waste in an unsafe manner in proceedings brought by the Environment Agency. Fines of £7,000 and £2,000 respectively were imposed by Pudsey Magistrates on July 31. Another recent case brought by the Environment Agency resulted in fines of £16,000 for Hicks Haulage Ltd. and £1,500 for Demolition Services Ltd. when Magistrates in Wetherby ruled that asbestos had been disposed of illegally and there had been a failure to pre-notify the Waste Regulation Authority of movement of special waste.
Asbestos-containing products within council housing stock continue to cause problems for residents and local government departments. On May 21, 1997 E. Osmotherly, the Local Government Ombudsman, found that the London Borough of Tower Hamlets was guilty of maladministration for its "failure to notify complainant of asbestos used in the construction of his home." The Ombudsman concluded that "the Council did not take reasonable steps to warn residents in the block that there was asbestos present in it." The finding that the petitioner could not have been expected to know about the presence of asbestos in his home before he bought the lease could have implications for former council tenants who bought their homes under the Conservative government's right to purchase scheme. The July 31 issue of The Glasgow Evening News reported a prolonged episode of asbestos exposure in a council block in Red Road, Glasgow. Although official council policy is to warn prospective tenants of the possibility of asbestos-containing products in the flats, Gerry McMorrow was never informed about potential health risks and so proceeded to carry out repair and decorating work in his new flat over a period of six months. When the council discovered the extent of the asbestos contamination which resulted, asbestos abatement workers wearing personal protective equipment were sent to decontaminate the flat. All of Mr. McMorrow's furniture, clothing and personal possessions were confiscated.
3. Contaminated Land
Contaminated sites where asbestos goods were manufactured and waste was dumped endure as reminders of the UK's asbestos past. An interesting publication by the Department of Environment asserts that: "the main manufacturing period for asbestos products in the United Kingdom was prior to the earliest effective waste legislation in the 1970s (the Control of Pollution Act 1974). Disposal of wastes, handling of materials and housekeeping on site before this time would generally have been haphazard and uncontrolled." A map pinpointing thirty sites at which asbestos products were manufactured in the 1970s is included in this eighteen page booklet: Asbestos Manufacturing Works (1995). Many of these sites belonged to the Turner and Newall group, Cape Asbestos and British Belting and Asbestos.
A review of local newspapers shows that the level of public concern over the development of potential sites is high. Plans by Rackwood Mining for a major open cast pit in Hindley Green are being objected to by residents who are members of the Scowcroft Action Group Committee. They allege that: "Turners (Brothers Asbestos) buried asbestos waste on it (the site) and we want the Environment Agency to carry out a technical study on site before there's any talk of mining which could release this type of deadly dust into the atmosphere." One hundred and thirty miles north, a former Cape Asbestos employee told a coroner's inquest that forty tons of asbestos had been buried twelve feet beneath a former Cape Asbestos works. Prior to his testimony, the company which currently occupies this site had been unaware of the magnitude of the problem. In the Barking area of London, another former Cape facility is causing anxiety to council tenants who have discovered that some of the houses on the Hart Lane estate are situated on land formerly occupied by a Cape factory. Previously, Barking and Dagenham Council had earmarked £700,000 for renovations on this estate; it now seems likely that the bulk of this money will be spent on soil decontamination. Over the last three years, a Devon firm has been building up a database which can help identify sites which may be contaminated. Landmark Information Group Limited is inputting details from all ordnance survey maps, as well as information gathered from local authorities and environment agencies. The result is a huge mass of information which is address-specific; that is, enquires made about any UK address will produce a series of maps on which former land uses are identified along with other relevant details.
4. T&N plc: News
News that the US Supreme Court had decertified the Georgine class action in late June led to a collapse in the share price of T&N plc, formerly the UK's largest asbestos manufacturer. A fall of more than ten per cent occurred amid fears that an insurance package arranged last year might be insufficient to cover the company's future asbestos liabilities. By August 11, shares had only risen to 147.5p from the June 26 figure of 143p. The company's underlying vulnerability to these liabilities had been analyzed two months earlier in the pages of The Investors Chronicle. The columnist asked: "From where did a £37m basketcase (T&N's market value in August, 1982) get £1.6bn (T&N's top 1996 estimate of the cost of asbestos-related litigation)? From its shareholders. Since 1986 T&N has issued £700m of new equity via five rights issues, one placing and the 1987 takeover of AE. It's the earnings from all that new capital that has produced some of the money to meet the claims."
In April, T&N sold Flexitallic, a gasket making subsidiary, for £42m; a profit of £19m was anticipated on this transaction. T&N's Chairman admitted that "Further non-automotive businesses of this kind will be sold" to meet this year's £70m target for disposals of non-core subsidiaries. The following month Ferodo Caernarfon, a clutch facing and industrial friction products subsidiary, was sold for £5m. There are rumors that bids for other parts of the group are in the pipeline; GKN is interested in T&N's metallurgy business, while BBA and Allied-Signal are considering a joint bid for the friction side. Analysts have been speculating on the identity of potential bidders for the whole corporation. The names of US motor groups Allied-Signal, Dana Corporation and Federal Mogul have surfaced as have those of T&N's UK rivals: GKN and BBA.
5. News Round-up
Pollution and Its Control in Asbestos Milling Processes in India by A.K.Mukherjee, R.R.Rajmohan et al. appeared in The Journal of Industrial Health. The authors found "higher fiber levels than the recommended standard though a considerable reduction in values were achieved compared to the first study (in 1989)."
Occupational Exposures to Asbestos in Brazil by F.Giannasi and A.Thebaud-Mony, in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health 1997, describes an epidemic of asbestos-related diseases in Brazil. The authors state that: "At this time, virtually all cases of asbestosis and asbestos-related cancers are not identified, reported, or compensated in developing countries." The paper discusses the efforts of European and Canadian asbestos companies to discourage a Brazilian ban on asbestos.
The paper Turner & Newall: Early Organizational Responses to Litigation Risk by N.Wikeley appeared in the June issue of the Journal of Law and Society. Focusing on the first English claim for asbestosis at common law, Wikeley points out that "between 1931 and 1948, £87, 938 was paid out to 140 asbestosis victims... in the same period, nearly £7 million was distributed to shareholders."
Screening and Surveillance of Workers Exposed to Mineral Dusts by G. R.Wagner was published in 1996 by the World Health Organization. Wagner recommends that asbestos exposed workers should have a baseline chest radiograph prior to the commencement of employment then at regular intervals depending on the number of years since first exposure.
Progression of Pleural and Parenchymal Disease on Chest Radiographs of Workers Exposed to Amosite Asbestos by J. R. Shepherd, G. Hillerdal et al. appeared in 1997 in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The authors conclude that: "An intense, yet short, exposure to amosite asbestos can produce pleural and parenchymal changes on chest radiographs... Age and intensity of exposure are the most important predictors of disease."
Asbestosis and Silicosis by G.R.Wagner appeared in the May, 1997 issue of The Lancet. Wagner stresses the need for accurate diagnosis and reporting by physicians.
Lung Cancer and Asbestos Exposure: Asbestosis is Not Necessary by D.Egilman and A. Reinert appeared in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine (1996). The authors conclude that: "lung cancers can occur as a result of asbestos exposure, in the absence of clinical or histologic asbestosis. Causation in an individual should be assessed by considering duration of exposure, intensity of exposure, and appropriate latency."
Several recent French articles and decrees have been translated by the Health & Safety Executive Language Services. They are: (1) Decree no. 96-98 - Protection of Workers Against the Risks Connected with Inhaling Asbestos Dust; (2) The Procedures for Assessing the State of Preservation of Flocking and Lagging Containing Asbestos and the Measurement of Dust Levels in Existing Buildings ; (3) Draft Decree Relating to the Protection of Workers Against The Risks Associated with the Inhalation of Asbestos Dusts; (4) Prevention of Risks Associated with Asbestos - Report to the Council of Ministers from the Minister of Employment and Social Affairs; (5) French Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs - Order of 14 May, 1996 Relating to the Methods of Inspection of Dust in Establishments where Workers are Exposed to Inhalation of Asbestos Dust.
On May 19, 1997 the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that: "The Government are determined to deal effectively with the problems of asbestos... Negotiations are being renewed at EU level which are likely to lead to further widespread prohibitions on the supply of asbestos."
On June 2, 1997 Environment Minister, Angela Eagle, reported that "The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) has already put in hand urgent work to support the EU activity to ban the supply of all asbestos, with exceptions for essential users; to consider the feasibility of registering asbestos in public buildings and to review the asbestos removal licensing system."
On June 18, 1997 an Adjournment debate in the House of Commons heard Michael Clapham, MP call for a ban on the import of chrysotile. Clapham pointed out that: "Huge amounts of asbestos are imported by Britain from Ireland and Belgium and an increasing amount is also imported from Poland." Eagle expressed the government's determination that "the death toll from asbestos in the long term should be reduced... The Government consider that continued use of products containing asbestos should be forcefully challenged. A prohibition on supply or use will lead to significant reductions in the overall risk to human health...we want to move to that position with all speed."
News of a precedent setting case in Japan appeared in the July, 1997 newsletter of the Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center. On March 31, eight asbestos victims collectively received an out of court settlement of nearly $1 million from Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd., their former employer. All the men had been exposed to huge amounts of asbestos in the port of Yokosuka where Sumitomo "had taken no effective measures to prevent exposure to the asbestos used for shipbuilding." This is the first time: a Japanese shipbuilding company has faced asbestos-related disease claims, an action has been taken against a 'user' industry as opposed to an asbestos manufacturer and former workers were supported in a legal action against their employer by a trade union, the All-Japan Shipbuilding and Engineering Union. The union wants to see compensation extended to subcontracted workers as well as to other former employees.
The homepage of the Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center is located at: http://www.jca.ax.apc.org/joshrc/
The European Agency Web Page will eventually be linked to sites in member states. At the moment, only a temporary service is available at: http://www.eu-osha.es
The Health & Safety Executive website is located at: http://www.open.gov.uk/hse/hsehome.htm
Compiled by Laurie Kazan-Allen