In pictures: The victims of asbestos

WHEN Harry McCluskey wakes in the morning in his home in Glasgow, he has to sit on the side of his bed for several minutes before he can summon the strength and breath to rise and get on with the day. McCluskey, 71, suffers from pleural plaques, pleural thickening and asbestosis, illnesses of the lungs caused by inhaling asbestos while he worked in the shipyards.

"It has affected my life to the point where I can really do nothing," he says, hoarsely. "I've got to get transport wherever I go. I can't walk the length of myself. My legs and breathing are terrible at times. I can't do things I would normally do – gardening or papering the house. In fact, if I bend down I get breathless. My wife's got to tie my laces, it's that bad."

McCluskey is secretary of Clydeside Action on Asbestos (CAA), a group that provides advice and support for victims in the west of Scotland. McCluskey and CAA have been lobbying the Scottish Government on the issue; it is expected that the parliament will soon pass a bill to ensure those suffering anxiety as a result of developing pleural plaques – scarring of the lungs – are able to claim compensation.

Although the plaques can cause shortness of breath, they are not, in themselves, harmful or painful. But people with plaques have a greatly increased risk of developing the incurable lung disease mesothelioma. It is not uncommon, therefore, for these individuals to feel they have been handed a death sentence.

"Yes, I am frightened," says Ron Marsh, 67, from Stonehaven. He was first exposed to asbestos in his late teens, when working part-time in the Glasgow iron foundry run by his father. He would cut up sheets of asbestos cement, wearing no protective clothing at all, and by the end of his shift the white dust would be so thick on him he looked like a snowman.

"These fibres have gone deep into my lungs," he says with obvious unease. "It worries me that they have travelled through the tissue of my body. So I'm living with this cloud over me all the time – am I going to get cancer?"

Across Britain, asbestos-related diseases claim the lives of 4,000 people every year, more than the number who die in road traffic accidents. The heat-resistant mineral was used widely in the UK construction sector from the late 19th century until it was banned in 1999. In Scotland, with its history of heavy industry, the consequences have been acute, and will continue to be so as the latency period can be as long as 40 years. West Dunbartonshire, Inverclyde, Renfrewshire and Glasgow have among the highest rates of death from mesothelioma in the UK.

But asbestos is a global problem. It continues to be used widely as a building material in poorer countries and, according to the World Health Organisation, it kills at least 90,000 people each year. Some sense of this can be seen in the work of the award-winning photographer Louie Palu, who has journeyed from his native Canada to India, England and Scotland, taking stark black-and-white pictures of sufferers. "No one deserves to die because they go to work and breathe a dust that gives them a death sentence," says Palu. "I met workers in the late stages of cancer from asbestos who looked like they had wandered out of a concentration camp. That shocked me and made me angry.

"Thanks to these brave people consenting to having their stories told and images published, we will not forget that the next victims of asbestos could be or already are our friends, mothers, sisters, wives, husbands, brothers, fathers and children. Their experience, memories and suffering should not be forgotten. There is asbestos all over the place, and people need to know and see that average everyday people can unknowingly poison themselves and die."

Palu focused on one Canadian sufferer, Blayne Kinart, photographing his deterioration from the age of 57, one year after diagnosis with mesothelioma, to his death at the age of 59. But in order to broaden his documentation of the problem, he travelled to Scotland – "ground zero of asbestos use and tragedy" – where, among other people, he photographed McCluskey.

McCluskey worked with asbestos from when he was 15 to when his declining health forced him to retire at 55. He was a lagger, applying asbestos insulation to pipes and boilers in power stations, hospitals, schools and ships. Always, there was dust everywhere. "A good example was the QE2," he says. "That was the heaviest I ever saw with asbestos insulation. That must have killed thousands. A lot of my friends who worked on that ship died."

McCluskey has grown sick of attending funerals. He has lost between 20 and 30 friends to asbestos, and knows that one day he will join them. "Oh aye, this is going to kill me," he says. "I'm not an exception to the rule. I know I'm going to die with it."

He seems matter-of-fact, almost resigned; as a campaigner, he has to keep a level-head. By contrast, Palu is more obviously angry about what he has seen. "There seems to be no worldwide outrage because it is a silent killer," he says. "I sometimes imagine that if all the asbestos victims died at once on the streets, people would then grasp that something has to be done."

www.louiepalu.com; Clydeside Action on Asbestos, 0141 552 8852

Blayne Kinart is comforted by his wife Sandy after receiving a painkiller in the form of two patches stuck to his back. The 58-year-old Canadian, a former chemical worker in Sarnia, Ontario, died in 2004 from mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos exposure. Residents there have nicknamed Sarnia 'Chemical Valley' due to the large number of industrial plants operating in the area

Raghunath Manwar examines an X-ray of one of several workers who has been diagnosed with asbestosis in Ahmedabad, India. Manwar, the secretary of NGO Occupational Health and Safety Association, is working with employees from the Ahmedabad Electric Company and the former Digvijay Cement Factory

A woman and a girl sort through rice surrounded by walls made from broken asbestos roof tiles in a small slum on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. The entire community is built on top of – and from – asbestos scraps and dumps, which were used for decades by the Shree Digvijay Cement Plant

Elizabeth Bradford 68, at home in London. During the 1970s, she worked in a portable classroom that had panels containing asbestos. It is thought that the regular pinning and unpinning of children's work to the panels caused the release of deadly fibres, resulting in her developing the cancer mesothelioma

Former shipyard workers Robert Boal (left), then 67, and Harry McCluskey (right), then 68 both suffer from asbestosis. They are seen here by the River Clyde, beside the cranes used in a shipbuilding yard in Glasgow. The shipbuilding industry involved the use of large quantities of asbestos – resulting in numerous asbestos-related cancers, asbestosis and a mounting death toll

Slowly but surely, the office building of an abandoned asbestos company decays and falls apart. The firm was situated adjacent to the port in Liverpool, where its product was unloaded for use throughout the country