The toxic legacy of Turner and Newall’s asbestos denialism
In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the ongoing efforts by the asbestos industry to deny the harm done by its products. The Daily Mirror has just published an in-depth article on the history of one such company’s efforts, and its continuing legacy.
From The Mirror
It was one of the UK’s 100 biggest firms with 60 per cent of the asbestos market.
Annual profits rose from £2million at the start of the 50s to nearly £10million in the 60s.
But a confidential letter to T&N’s directors from solicitors James Chapman & Co, in 1964, revealed their deepest fears. It said: “We have over the years been able to talk our way out of claims or compromise for comparatively small amounts, but we have always recognised that at some stage solicitors of experience would, with the advance in medical knowledge and the development of the law, recognise there is no real defence to these claims and take us to trial.”
The first confirmed T&N mesothelioma death – Frank Brooks – happened that same year. But his widow was never told and was left to discover the truth 18 years later.
A report in 1965 revealed a spate of mesothelioma cases among residents living near the Cape factory in Barking, East London. It closed three years later.
But rather than admit defeat, T&N was determined to fight back.
The board met in 1967 to grapple with “damaging and alarmist statements about the dangers of using asbestos products”.
Hill and Knowlton, a PR firm that had spent the previous 14 years helping the US tobacco industry deny links between cigarettes and cancer, was brought in.
The board’s minutes noted: “Their job will be to combat and, if possible, to forestall adverse publicity.”
Asbestos regulations were tightened again in 1968 but on T&N’s factory floor standards remained slack. Pictures of workers in 1970 showed them wearing no head gear or masks.
Asbestos shipments continued. Imports hit a peak in the early 70s of 190,000 tonnes a year. Meanwhile T&N paid paltry sums to keep the families of dead workers on side.
But in 1982, T&N’s asbestos rollercoaster came off the tracks. The company made a £30million loss, with the costs of compensation payouts topping £6million.
The agonising fight of 47-year-old mum Alice Jefferson against mesothelioma was screened on TV in Alice: A Fight for Life.
Within a week the government announced tighter regulations on asbestos dust. Three years later the two most dangerous types of asbestos were banned outright.
T&N’s compensation payouts rose to tens of millions of pounds a year and then to hundreds of millions. In 1997 it was sold off to a US company, which four years later moved to protect itself against bankruptcy.
More than £90million has since been found to pay sick and dying T&N employees and their families for the next 40 years.
But there is no money for the workers who were exposed before 1965.
Today the site of the heavily-contaminated Rochdale site is derelict, although the new owners plan to build 600 homes there.
Researcher Jason Addy, whose grandfather died after handling T&N’s asbestos, says he wants the site to “rest in peace – like far too many people who worked there”.