Yesterday I had the privilege of chairing the annual asbestos seminar organised by the all-party group on occupational health and safety in the House of Commons. I have a particular interest in this area because I acted for victims of asbestos disease and the families of those killed by asbestos disease in the courts for over 25 years before I was elected.
There was a good turnout of well over 50 people from a range of organisations including victims support groups, solicitors, trade unions and health professionals. Several of my Labour colleagues also attended including our Shadow Secretary of State for Work and pensions, Margaret Greenwood MP.
We had a very high calibre of speakers and the seminar was kicked of by one of Britain’s leading chest specialists, Professor Sir Anthony Newman Taylor, who is leading a new research centre to try to develop treatments and early diagnosis for mesothelioma a fatal disease caused by asbestos exposure that kills over 2,500 people every year. He explained very clearly about the work that was taking place in the new National Centre for Mesothelioma Research which was set up with Government funding just over 2 years ago. In that time they have made impressive progress in understanding the biology of the cancer, in particular knowledge of the mutations in genes coding for the proteins involved in the control of cellular growth and proliferation. This work could be of immense importance in helping future victims of asbestos.
We had been due to hear next from Dr. Mags Portman, a sexual health consultant who has developed mesothelioma, about her experience of living with mesothelioma and her campaign for more recognition of the number of people who have been exposed to asbestos in hospitals. Unfortunately, although she is responding well to treatment, Mags was just too ill to attend on the day and her (very moving) talk was given by Liz Darlison of Mesothelioma UK.
The keynote speaker was Fernanda Giannasi, who is a retired Labour Inspector and co-founder of the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed. She told the story of the successful campaign to ban asbestos in Brazil, which had been the third largest producer of asbestos in the world. Fernanda highlighted the kind of tricks that the asbestos industry had used to try to prevent any kind of legal restrictions and gave some of her own experiences of the intimidation attempts that had been made to stop her investigating the dangers of asbestos. Even after the Brazilian courts finally banned the mining, processing, marketing and distribution of asbestos the companies did everything they could to get round the law.
Other speakers were Jason Addy from the Spodden Valley Trust who talked about the scandal of contaminated land, and John McLean who gave an update on the Asbestos in Schools campaign.
The final speaker was barrister Krishnendu Mukherjee, who talked about the struggle of asbestos workers employed by Everest Industries in Kolkata, India. Everest is one of the largest companies manufacturing asbestos roof sheets in India. The workers are currently engaged in a crucial struggle for the diagnosis of asbestos-related diseases and have formed a trade union to campaign against the use of asbestos, to try to end the suspension of workers who have questioned the safety of asbestos and for better working conditions. He also showed a trailer for a new film on asbestos called “Breathless – The fight against the Global Asbestos Industry”, which you can see here.
The seminar showed that, despite asbestos having been banned in Britain for almost 20 years there is still a huge problem out there. Millions of tons of asbestos are still in place in workplaces across the country and every year 5,000 people die prematurely because of past exposure.
Two things were very clear from the seminar. The first was the huge energy there is out there to make sure that these victims are supported, and this terrible killer fibre eradicated. The second is the need to support those who are fighting in other parts of the world against the asbestos industry to try to secure an asbestos-free world.