Hazards of unsettling the dust

Magic Mineral to Killer Dust
January 12, 2001

Asbestos began to be mined commercially in 1878, and by 1898 was announced by HM Inspectorate of Factories to be one of the four most serious occupational dusts of the year, with ascertained injury to bronchial tubes and lungs. In 1906, the French Factory Inspectorate reported the occurrence of 16 deaths in the first five years of operation of an asbestos textile factory. In due course, asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma reluctantly came to be accepted by industry as hazards, though periodically consigned to history with the putative introduction of safe working conditions.

Geoffrey Tweedale's book is a well-researched and independently funded history that is compelling and often chilling. It is of contemporary relevance as despite more than 100 years of experimental and human evidence of the nature and burden of its hazards, asbestos remains a world problem. Many millions of tonnes of asbestos that have been mined have yet to be safely disposed of, and millions of people are still at risk as a result of past occupational and other exposures. Furthermore, it continues to be mined in the millions of tonnes, and as fast as developed countries discontinue its use, supplies are diverted to the third world.

Tweedale came as no tyro to research into company history, but his earlier study of Allen & Hanburys, the pharmacy and surgical instrument enterprise, an exemplar of the Quaker ethos at work over generations in commerce and industry, ill prepared him for this one. His book on the "magic mineral" is the product of five years' work, assisted by microfilms of a gigantic haystack of hitherto unavailable company records, "discovered" by order of the American courts. Set in the context of billions of dollars still at stake in asbestos claims, with major asbestos companies in technical bankruptcy, the Lloyds insurance market still recovering from an attack of the vapours in which Names were genuinely bankrupted, and the law on defamation, it is a tribute to the stout hearts of the Wellcome trustees who sponsored the research and to the publishers that the author has seen his book in print with few excisions.

If Tweedale imbues his writing with more passion than some might deem seemly for a professional historian, he would surely have needed a heart of stone after studying the recorded hand-written pleas from employees and the stonewalling by company officials, not to have introduced a note of outrage. He describes the development of an enterprising and sophisticated member of a profitable international industry, and the price in terms of human lives that will continue to be paid well into the new millennium. For lawyers, scientists, economists and historians, it presents a case report, in which each stands to gain in understanding by studying their particular interests in the context of those of the other specialisms. The general reader who wonders, "Why, when we know so much about the hazards of asbestos, surely there cannot be a problem any more?", will be better informed.

Those THES readers who have led a sheltered existence will learn of some of the hazards of research. When in 1943 Leroy Gardner, a distinguished experimental pathologist at Saranac Laboratories, reported to his sponsors the appearance of an excess of lung tumours in a group of mice exposed to asbestos, publication was forbidden, with the connivance of industry experts who condemned the science. Years after Gardner's death, it was left to a maverick scientist, Gerrit Schepers, to disinter his evidence and confirm his observations. Gardner's uncensored report was referred by Turner and Newall to their head of research, who, although not an expert in the field. He informed management that he considered the association of lung cancer with asbestos quite plausible, in view of the several cases that he was aware of among company employees. Gardner's successor repeated his experiment some years later with similar findings and, as reward, his research was discontinued, his employment was terminated and in due course the laboratory was closed.

The prospects for the would-be scientist are not necessarily all that gloomy. Read Tweedale carefully and you will learn that asbestos research has not invariably carried a career health risk for scientists. He includes accounts of more prudent scientists, who after conducting or threatening to conduct pioneering studies into the adverse effects of asbestos, went on, rich in honours, to become trusted advisers to industry, and there are even some who Balaam-like went forth to proclaim the blessings of asbestos.

Morris Greenberg is an independent epidemiologist based in London.

Magic Mineral to Killer Dust: Turner and Newall and the Asbestos Hazard

Author - Geoffrey Tweedale
ISBN - 0 19 829690 8 and 924399 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £40.00 and £17.99
Pages - 313

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