John Mullin: Death by working class killer

Bob Cole, who ended his life at a swiss clinic, is just one of 5,000 people a year to die in the UK as a result of asbestos-related disease, writes John Mullin

Bob Cole had a particularly deadly form of lung cancer called mesothelioma which he got from exposure to asbestos. Picture: PA
Bob Cole had a particularly deadly form of lung cancer called mesothelioma which he got from exposure to asbestos. Picture: PA
Bob Cole had a particularly deadly form of lung cancer called mesothelioma which he got from exposure to asbestos. Picture: PA

BOB Cole died yesterday. Around 2pm in a purpose-built flat on a Swiss industrial estate outside Zurich, he said goodbye to his friends, and went to sleep for the last time. He was 68, terminally ill, and was taking his life into his own hands, as around 30 Britons do each year at the Dignitas.

His wife, Pam, was one of them. She was suffering from progressive supernuclear palsy, a fatal brain disease, and faced a terrible death. In February last year she died as Chris de Burgh’s Here is Your Paradise played at her bedside.

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Bob, from Chester, chose the same song yesterday. His last act – witnessed by two close friends – was to press the button to release the barbiturates, connected via a drip in his arm.

Assisted dying is an enormously complex and highly controversial issue. The debate continues to rage, and no doubt you have your view.

But this piece is less about how Bob chose to die, and more about what really killed him. For he had a particularly deadly form of lung cancer called mesothelioma, and he got it, as all sufferers do, from exposure to asbestos, still present in buildings everywhere.

He was diagnosed just one month ago, and he was already on hefty doses of morphine and still doubled up in pain. No-one ever survives mesothelioma; they can’t cut out the cancer, and chemotherapy is ineffective.

I’ve seen it up close. More than 20 years ago, I visited a street in Clydebank, close to where my mother had grown up. Every second or third house, someone was suffering from – or had already succumbed to – lung cancer, asbestosis or mesothelioma. One had been a friend of my mum’s.

I was ushered to the bedside of a shrunken husk of a man. Tommy Allan had weighed 13 stone, and was now down to just eight. He opened his pyjama top to show me a sunken chest studded with ugly lumps. His voice a rasping whisper, every breath a battle even to witness, he told me to touch them.

I remember fearing his yellowing skin was so fragile – like crepe paper – that it might tear. I expected those many lumps to be soft, but they were rock hard, and I thought of knitting needles sticking out from the inside. This then was mesothelioma. He died two days later.

He had worked in shipbuilding when the Clyde led the world. So did most of the men in the street. Asbestos, with its remarkable insulating qualities, was a key material as it was then in virtually every facet of industry and building work. It was even used in hair-dryers.

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There were no safety procedures towards asbestos in the yards: the men worked without masks. They even had mock snowball fights with it. The wives were exposed when they shook out and washed their husbands’ overalls. And the kids? Even running to meet their dad returning from work could do it: astonishingly, a single exposure is enough. Asbestos-related disease is one of the biggest scandals of British industrial life. Companies were reckless in their procedures: criminal, you might say. And, throughout, insurers have fought successive desperate rearguard actions to avoid and stem the number and size of pay-outs.

The dangers of asbestos – the so-called “miracle mineral” widely used for its fire-resistant properties – were known from 1898 onwards. And Nellie Kershaw, a factory worker at Turner Brothers in Rochdale, was the first identified as having been killed by it in 1924. She got no compensation, of course. That set the standard ever since: to limit liability and compensation payments.

There have been various arguments deployed. Claims, for example, died with the patient: mightily convenient when the average survival time after diagnosis with mesothelioma is just eight months. Other possible causes were wrongly cited, to muddy the waters. Insurers argued that they had no liability for companies that had since gone out of business. Some loopholes have been plugged, and The Independent on Sunday, which I edited at the time, successfully campaigned for sufferers of pleural plaques, a precursor to fatal illness, to be eligible for compensation too. But not before thousands of victims missed out.

Talk about asbestosis in polite company, and you see the eyes glaze over. The chattering classes – even those who fancy themselves as lefties – have scant understanding of the lot of the working man or woman now or then. And they don’t seem to have much interest in plugging this knowledge gap.

Some do recognise the scandal, but think its of another age. “It’s all so long ago,” they say. Wrong! The gap between exposure to onset can be 40 years or more, a ticking time bomb of needle-shaped fibres dormant in the lungs.

And so deaths from asbestos-related illnesses will not peak in this country until 2020. Surprised?

Maybe you will also be taken aback by the scale of this killer. Each year, 5,000 people die from the effects of asbestos in the UK – that is more than twice as many as die on the roads

The World Health Organisation estimates that 90,000 a year die each year globally, and that, when it is finally all over, the death toll attributable to asbestos-related disease could hit ten million. You can begin to see why the insurance industry is so spooked.

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The Independent on Sunday’s investigation six years ago looked at an area in Dagenham, Essex in the shadow of the Cape Asbestos plant, which closed in 1968. Between 1981 and 2005, 187 men had died from asbestos-related illnesses, and 60 women.

As one of those interviewed said: “Hitler killed one of my uncles. Cape killed the rest.” One whole family was wiped out. One woman who had only lived on a house built on the site of the factory was among those cited.

But Richard Gaze, the former chief scientist at Cape, always denied the company was responsible. He died aged 65 in 1982. Of what? Mesothelioma.

Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, put it perfectly. “If that amount of death occurred in any other profession, it would be a national scandal. It’s a working class disease, and it doesn’t get the attention it should do.

“It’s extraordinary what’s going on in our area. It’s an epidemic. There’s barely a family that doesn’t have some experience of asbestos-related disease and it’s going to get worse. It’s not even at its peak yet.”

It is a story still playing out up and down this country. I was about to write Bob Cole is the latest victim of this scandal. Then, I did the arithmetic. And asbestos killed another dozen people in Britain yesterday. Makes you think, doesn’t? I hope it does.