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Terrible Toll of Killer Substance

Terrible Toll of Killer Substance.

Byline: By Gayle Tomlinson Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England), June 27, 2005

As an asbestos awareness group celebrates clawing back its first pounds 1m for its members, Industrial Reporter Gayle Tomlinson looks back on the legacy of the deadly dust in the North

Asbestos. It was meant to be the magic mineral that could make workplaces and homes safe from fire.

But instead the substance has become the biggest workplace killer in history.

Every year the deadly dust kills hundreds of North East workers.

In the UK alone in 2002 1,862 people died from asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis.

This figure is not expected to peak until 2015, when an estimated 2,450 will die.

The number of North East victims is expected to grow every year as the legacy of the region's industrial past catches up with the workers.

And hundreds of people are waiting to have their compensation cases heard in court.

John Wilkinson of Walker was left crippled by lung disease mesothelioma after working with asbestos as an apprentice for Hudson Brothers in Middlesbrough.

The 54-year-old, who died in April, relied on a ventilator to breathe and wore strong morphine patches to keep the pain away.

His job was helping to put windows in fire doors. Before he died John told the Chronicle he could remember sawing the asbestos-covered wood and being surrounded by asbestos dust.

He was never told about the dangers and never wore a dust mask.

John never saw a penny in compensation. His claim wasn't settled until two weeks ago.

To help the thousands like John, a support group has been set up. The North East Asbestos Support and Awareness Group (NASAG) was founded in 2002 and offers free support and advice to people who suffer from asbestos-related diseases like pleural plaques, pleural thickening, asbestosis and mesothelioma and helps them to claim their due entitlements.

In two years it has claimed more than pounds 1m from businesses and insurance companies for its members who suffered debilitating cancers, caused by asbestos, and many more cases are being prepared for court.

Founder Frank Gray said: "The amount of compensation that we have helped to recover is a reflection on how badly the North East area has been affected by asbestos.

"But this is just scratching the surface as mesothelioma is now reaching epidemic proportions."

Solicitors Thompsons in Newcastle has more than 800 cases on its books alone.

Ian McFall, head of the firm's asbestos team, said it receives dozens of new cases every month and the figure is likely to increase in the future as more people get sick and awareness is raised.

The dangers faced by those exposed to asbestos dust were not highlighted until the early 40s and it was not until 1969 that the government brought in stringent rules on its use.

Even after that date employers working in shipyards and factories were still being put at risk.

Last year the Chronicle revealed how the Washington Chemical Company, also known as Turner and Newall, knowingly exposed thousands of workers to the dust. Secret documents showed how management tried to cover up the effects it was having on its workers.

Despite thousands of people dying and getting ill from the dust, the first asbestos compensation case was not brought to court until 1967.

It took five years for the claimant, a Mr Smith, to win damages at the Court of Appeal against the Central Asbestos Company.

Mr McFall says it was not until the last 10 years that awareness of the dust took off and now more and more victims and their families are able to claim compensation.

He said: "It has been escalating since the 80s and it has undergone a marked increase in the last 10 years."

And he warned that while claimants who worked in shipyards and factories are able to win the cash owed to them, some tradesmen are struggling to win damages for their illnesses.

He said: "Cases involving shipbuilding, power stations and factory environments are very likely to be successful. But there is another type of case that is coming through much more now ( people who worked in the construction or demolition industries, tending to have been employed by smaller companies for small periods of time, working in different locations.

"Finding the employers, if they still exist, is difficult. Finding their insurers is even more problematic."