Fireproof death

Consider these two recent events — the stories of Alice Jefferson and Anne Philips. Alice worked with asbestos at Cape Industries Hebden Bridge factory for nine months when she was a young girl. Thirty years later, (in February 1982) she died a very painful death from mesothelioma (asbestos cancer) leaving her husband and two young children. She had suffered from tiredness and breathlessness for the last eight years of her life. In 1980 when her husband was unemployed she had been forced to take her fourteen-year-old son with her to work because she was too weak to do her cleaning job on her own but she needed the money. Her pain was excruciating and despite the use of the addictive pain-killing drugs dicanol and heroin she still suffered sleepless nights of agony. (Labour Research, April 1983). Her death must have been a great release although a compounded agony for her family.

On the other hand, consider the situation of Anne Philips. She lives at a place called Gatcombe House in Gloucestershire which her mother bought for her as a present. It cost somewhere between £450,000 and £725,000 and stands in 750 acres of prime farmlands and woods with plenty of stable space as well as a lake and boathouse. Anne receives over £50,000 a year as pocket money — one of the larger giro cheques paid by the state. When it was confirmed that white asbestos was present in a farm drive leading to Anne’s mansion, members of the Health and Safety Executive were immediately sent to inspect the possible danger. Tests of air samples were swiftly undertaken by scientists and the results indicated that the asbestos fibre levels were, in fact, less than one hundredth of the levels currently permitted by law. The managers of the Gatcombe estate were nevertheless “advised by the Health and Safety Executive to consider ways of reducing the amount of dust thrown up from the road”. (The Standard, London evening paper, 31 August 1983.)

Asbestos is used in many products. It is to be found in gaskets, seals, textiles and friction materials. It is also in cement products, spray and insulation board used in buildings for fire protection. It is a fairly cheap and therefore profitable fire resistant material. Because of the fire hazards of modern urban areas and certain legal requirements, the ruling class are prepared for its use by workers as “protection” in the institutions of working class life, but they are not so keen when it comes to their own dwellings. Although it has been known for a long time that asbestos presents a great risk to health, the substance has continued to be used by working people. The directors and shareholders in the construction industry have generally been more concerned about the size of their dividends than with the depth of their workers’ lung scars.

A report of the Factory Inspectorate in 1898 spoke about the “evil effects” of asbestos. In 1930 the government commissioned an investigation into the effects of the substance and the analysis of the Merewether and Price Report showed a massive incidence of crippling lung-scarring then occurring in the asbestos textile industry. Richard Peto, Reader in Cancer Studies at the University of Oxford has stated:

The foregoing estimates suggest there will be a total of about 50,000 asbestos-induced deaths in Britain over the next 30 years or so. 50,000 deaths is so enormous that it is difficult to comprehend. For example, it greatly exceeds the likely number of murders during the same 30 year period . . . because it is so widespread, asbestos may well be the worst occupational carcinogen (cancer causing substance) ever. (Selikoff and Lee, Asbestos and Disease, 1978.)

There is a calculable risk of contracting an asbestos-related disease at places where the substance is used. For example, at the Hebden Bridge factory where Alice Jefferson worked there is a one-in-eight chance. 2,200 people worked at this factory between 1939 and 1970. Of those who have been traced, 13 per cent had developed asbestos-related diseases — that is 279 workers — and 107 had died as a result of their condition. (Journal of Royal College of Surgeons, vol. 12, p. 2917, and report of Dr. Bertram Mann.)

In September the Health and Safety Commission imposed much stricter controls on the use of all types of asbestos in this country and recommended bars on the import of the two most deadly types of the material. “All the medical doubts are now over” belatedly declared the chairman of the Commission, Bill Simpson (Guardian, 24 August 1983) who, we must conclude, is either not very quick on the uptake of medical evidence or is less than honest.

Since society has become aware of the dangers of asbestos thousands of people who have had to work with it have been sacrificed on the altar of profitability. There are safer substitutes for nearly all uses of asbestos, and in many cases the substitutes are actually better. A 1982 Home Office report for the Fire Brigade, on the performance of heat resistant leather as fire blanket fabric, concluded: “this material gave a superior performance to that of asbestos”.

Asbestos-related deaths which are all now socially unnecessary are only a grave in the cemetery of needless human waste which is capitalism. Think of the thousands who die prematurely or are maimed in industrial accidents. One of these victims was labelled by the news media in June as “the bravest man in Britain” after he had walked over half a mile while carrying his dismembered left arm which had been torn off in a hay baling accident. The accident may never have happened had there been a £20 guard on the machine, but the boss was not keen to spend the money. Think of the thousands who die for want of medical apparatus like kidney machines while immense resources are channelled into producing better bombs. Over 100,000 people go blind each year because of simple vitamin A deficiency and unclean water.

The magnitude and persistence of these problems within capitalism (the global social system of minority ownership of the means of life) cannot be eradicated by a tireless assault of reform measures and “stricter controls”. It is in the nature of this system to act in the economic interests of the minority with general disregard of social factors such as the health, safety and welfare of the majority who produce all the wealth.

Imagine a society where those responsible for testing the safety of products had to conduct their experiments in badly lit rooms against the nagging pressure of the flowing sands of an egg-timer with £ signs on the glass tube; where the entire staff of the hospitals were working with one arm tied behind their backs. That is similar to the society we operate at present. Then imagine how healthy and efficient we could be if doctors, industrial researchers, scientists, nurses and hospital staff could have all the time and the best conditions and equipment that they wanted. Such a society is a possible and urgent necessity. In a socialist society, asbestos and similar hazards will be consigned to the morbid museum of murderous relics which, through inadequate research caused so much damage: the mountain of Thalidomides, Rowan Points, Ford Pintos, Osmosins, inflammable toxic furniture, lead based petrol and poisonous Spanish cooking oils. Grim mementos of an epoch before social sanity.

Gary Jay