1906 saw the first documented asbestos related death, but why did it take another 93 years for the UK to ban the use of asbestos? Compared to some other countries, the UK was slow to act in implementing solid legislation that protected the health of both workers and the public. so what happened in those 93 years?
The story begins in 1924, with the death of a woman called Nellie Kershaw. At 12 years old she left school to start a job in a mill, spinning raw asbestos fibre into yarn. At the age of 29, she began to exhibit symptoms of asbestosis, and died only 4 years later. Her death was the first case of asbestosis to be described in medical literature, and paved the way for the introduction of the first asbestos industry regulations in 1931.
After Nellie’s death, the effects of asbestos related health problems were well documented in connection with the manufacture process. But it wasn’t until 1965, with the publication of “Mesothelioma of Pleura and Peritoneum Following Exposure to Asbestos in the London Area” that the link between cancer and asbestos deaths away from the manufacturing process was established without a doubt.
The UK government could no longer ignore the asbestos problem after the links to cancer were scientifically proven. The Asbestos regulations 1969 gave guidance on the limits to asbestos dust exposure. These regulations were far more stringent than any before, and covered all factories, construction and engineering projects.
1972 saw the first successful personal injury claim relating to asbestos, and corporations finally started taking the consequences of asbestos seriously. Due to its use being so widespread however, employers were still reluctant to take responsibility, in fear of the financial ramifications.
The 80s and early 90s saw a flurry of more legislation designed to further limit the use of asbestos. This included the Asbestos Licensing Regulations 1983, and the Control of Asbestos at Work 1985 and 1992. It seemed the government was taking asbestos seriously as last, but a full ban was still not implemented.
In 1995 a report published by Professor Julian Peto et al. showed that asbestos related deaths were increasing at an alarming rate, and 25% of these were away from the manufacturing industries. This included many tradesmen and other construction related workers. Later, in 1996 a scandal broke when it was discovered that respiratory protective equipment supplied for the protection against asbestos were not performing at the levels claimed by manufacturers.
The government had to do something. There could be no doubt that asbestos was a danger to anyone who came into contact with it, and not just people involved in the manufacture as previously thought. Finally in 1999, asbestos use was banned outright by the UK government, 75 years after the death of Nellie Kershaw.
If you would like to know about the history of asbestos use, we have another on the uses in Medieval and Ancient times. Have a read.