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Don't Hold Your Breath
"Owen Lilly is dying because he worked in the asbestos industry"
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Wednesday, 8 November, 2000, 07:52 GMT
Don't Hold Your Breath: Transcript
Frontline graphic

This is the full transcript of Frontline Scotland's Don't Hold Your Breath programme which was broadcast on 7 November.

OWEN LILLY: What you've got here is a talking skeleton, that's all you've got. And I'm bitter about it, and I'm angry about it, because the people that put me in this bed knew they were going to do it, they knew they were going to kill me and thousands, tens of thousands like me.

ROSS McWILLIAM: Owen Lilly has only months to live. He's dying because he worked in the asbestos industry.

OWEN: They didn't give a damn because they were making plenty of money. If the government let them, their doctors let them...

ROSS: Owen is seeking compensation from his former employers. His case goes to court next year. He says he wants justice, but he's not holding his breath.


ROSS: Death by asbestos, once the curse of the shipyard, is killing more and more Scots every year.

This new epidemic will double the death toll by 2020 as a generation of construction workers are struck down by the deadly dust.

Tonight, Frontline Scotland reveals a new campaign for justice and compensation, and a glimmer of hope from modern science.

TOMMY NELSON (Clydeside Action on Asbestos): Anger's hardly the word. It frustrates, it belittles, it pains. There are victims here who wait years to try and get their story presented to court to try and get some type of award as justice for what happened.

ROSS: A deputation from Clydeside Action on Asbestos arrives to lobby MSPs on the powerful Justice Committee. They want the law changed to favour sick former employees rather than the companies they once worked for.

TOMMY: We're here today to try and eliminate some of these conflicts, to try and get the Justice Committee to see the point of view from a victim.

OWEN: I'm going to die. It doesn't matter what name they put on the certificate. The only thing is, if they don't put the right one on it my wife's going to get nothing out of the insurance companies, nothing at all, because they'll make bloody sure of it. And they'll be supported with all their hanger-ons like their highly paid doctors and lawyers. And these people are defending indefensibly.

ROSS: Owen Lilly is not alone in believing the law is weighted against him. His solicitor, who also represents the Clydeside Action Group, is constantly frustrated at arguing the same minute detail over and over again in court.

FRANK MAGUIRE (Solicitor Advocate, Clydeside Action for Asbestos): They are always arguing the same point afresh in every case. Even to the point of proving obvious things like the QE2 was built at John Brown at Clydebank in 1968. It's because I've got to prove everything that there's a delay in the case, there's a denial of a proper trial at the right time, and the law is against us on it.

We cannot do anything more with the civil courts. So, therefore, we've had to go to the Scottish Parliament and present the frustration, and that feeling of injustice from the civil process, so that we could perhaps change the law so that it gives more justice, and gets these cases tried properly and speedily.

ROSS: Clydeside Action on Asbestos wants the legal process simplified and made quicker. The group says companies should be stopped from issuing blanket denials that lead to lengthy and complex legal wrangling. It also wants juries, not judges, to decide on the level of compensation for victims who suffer from diseases caused by asbestos.

Exposure to asbestos can lead to lung cancer, which in most cases proves fatal. It also causes asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs which, in effect, eventually strangles the patient. And then there's mesothelioma, one of the most painful and aggressive of all cancers. The tumour covers the surface of the lung and the lining of the chest cavity. There's no cure, and after diagnosis most patients die within a year.

Dr HELENE IRVINE (Public Health Consultant, Greater Glasgow Health Board): We see high rates of death in those occupations that we know have a link with asbestos.

And we also see it much more in men than in women. I think the ratio is about seven to one, and that is pretty convincing evidence that it's largely occupational. If asbestos-related disease, and mesothelioma in particular, were environmentally acquired generally we would see roughly equal numbers of men and women.

Generally speaking the west of Scotland has much higher rates than the east of Scotland. There are small clusters in Lanarkshire and Fife, but on the whole the clusters tend to be in areas in the west of Scotland that are famous for shipbuilding, in particular on the Clyde.

ROSS: Clydeside had a huge appetite for the magic mineral. Asbestos was everywhere in the shipyards - used to insulate engine rooms, lag pipes, cover electric wires, and for sound-proofing.

OWEN LILLY: We were putting pipes in, there were guys lagging the pipes that had already been laid, and asbestos was getting splattered everywhere. They played with snowballs and everything, you know...we'd fling it at one another, and it wasn't reckoned to be a big risk at all.

GEOFF TWEEDALE (Business Historian, Manchester Metropolitan University): From what I can see of the documentation there was very little safety quarter at all working in the shipyards with asbestos. There were no warnings on the material, masks were not always provided for the workers, there were no overalls, no washing facilities.

ROSS: The shipbuilding community of Clydebank, a notorious hot-spot of asbestos-related diseases, also had an asbestos factory, Turner and Newall. Business historian Geoff Tweedale has made an in-depth study of the company.

GEOFF: Turner and Newall was known as the asbestos giant because it was the dominant firm in the British asbestos industry - probably accounting for something like half the country's asbestos trade after the Second World War.

ROSS: The construction of the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow used half a million square feet of asbestos. Turner and Newall's publicity boasted that its products had been used extensively.

GEOFF: Asbestos can be described as a kind of white gold because you'd dug this mineral out of the ground, and Turner and Newall made a lot of money out of it. So it earned a lot of money for the company and its shareholders. And also the workers shared in that prosperity, but, of course, they paid a high price in terms of ill health later on.

ROSS: Raw asbestos is a fibrous material that comes in different colours.

DR R A BURNETT (Pathologist, Glasgow Western Infirmary): These are the major types of asbestos. There's white asbestos, which is a curly fibre variety, and brown asbestos and blue asbestos, which are the straight fibre, or amphibone asbestos, and these are regarded as the most dangerous.

These fly down the airways, almost like javelins. So they tend to go to the lower lobes of the lungs, and because these things are so long and thin, once they're there they are very difficult, if not impossible, to remove.

ROSS: Blue asbestos was once widely and proudly promoted by Turner and Newall.

Blue asbestos promotion: "Another sort of asbestos is lavender blue in colour. It has particularly good heat resisting properties, and is now being used extensively in electrically welding."

Dr HELENE IRVINE: Basically if the fibre is retained in the lung, if it stays in there long enough and isn't dealt with by the body's immune system, it can go on to form a tumour.

Dr BURNETT: This is a section of a mesothelioma. The tumour spreads extensively within the chest and compresses the lung. The patient will usually experience progressive shortness of breath, and frequently chest pain due to the involvement by the tumour of the chest wall.

ROSS: Is there any treatment?

Dr BURNETT: At present there is no effective treatment for mesothelioma.

ROSS: There is clear evidence that employers like Turner and Newall knew about the hazards of asbestos for decades, but continued to put their workers at risk, and along the way, made a fortune.

GEOFF TWEEDALE: In 1924 there was an inquest on a Turner and Newall worker in Rochdale, and it was settled at the inquest that this worker, named Nelly Kershaw, had died from the effects of breathing asbestos dust. So, certainly, from the 1920s the company knew that asbestos was a health hazard. And as the mortality increased in the 1940s the company also realised that lung cancer was an increasing hazard by asbestos workers.

ROSS: Geoff Tweedale has examined a million-page archive of Turner and Newall's released for public scrutiny during a legal action in America. He's published a damning account of the company's health record.

GEOFF: I think you can describe it as criminal because certainly on the evidence I've seen it can be proved that the company flouted the 1931 Dust Regulations. And, in fact, whenever Turner and Newall has been taken to court it has either had to settle or the courts decision has gone against the company.

ROSS: In 1930 Turner and Newall built an asbestos plant at Dalmuir in Clydebank. Owen Lilly worked there in the sixties.

OWEN LILLY: It was pretty hellish, very basic. Conditions in the factory were diabolical. Dust in the looked like a London fog. It was almost nice looking, it had that kind of mysterious look about it. The noise was atrocious.

ROSS: Company documents from the Fifties reveal the tragic case of Charlie Coyle, a Glasgow man employed by Turner and Newall to lag pipes with asbestos concrete.

GEOFF: In the months preceding Charlie Coyle's death the Turner and Newall solicitor suggested that it might be better for the company to wait until he died before they settled any claim. So, really, Turner and Newall stonewalled the claim so that they could settle it cheaply, which is what happened eventually.

STATEMENT: "The man has a very poor expectation of life. If he does succumb the claim will not be any more expensive, and without his evidence the solicitors will be in greater difficulties. In short, I do not think tactically we have anything to lose by leaving the matter in abeyance."

ROSS: Charlie Coyle's widow, Margaret, was offered an ex-gratia payment on the condition she waived all rights to further claims, and the money wasn't an admission of liability. She got 250.

ROSS: Half a century later it's Owen Lilly's turn to take on Turner and Newall.

OWEN: The first thing I saw was this huge big building like a giant...all dirty grey on the outside...and a kind of slow rumble coming from within. The foreman never once mentioned any dangers except to say that if I ever had to go upstairs to what they called the beaters, then I would have to wear a mask, because I was working with blue asbestos, and it would be dangerous stuff. He never mentioned the dangers of the brown, or the white.

ROSS: Turner and Newall, and John Brown Shipyard, are contesting Owen's compensation claim. The case will be heard next year.

Owen's wife, Margaret, has never worked with asbestos, yet she has potentially fatal fibres in her lungs. She believes she's a victim of the dust her husband brought home on his work clothes.

MARGARET LILLY: We were just in what was called a 'room and kitchen'. We shared a toilet with two other people on the landing, and we didn't have a sort of modern bathroom or anything like that, obviously, and just a little scullery. So when it came to washing the kind of working clothes that Owen was wearing it was really quite horrendous trying to get them clean, and keep him going in clean clothes.

Dr IRVINE: If you interview women you find that a greater number of them have no risk factor at all, but those that do have a risk factor have a whole range of causes including, perhaps, living with somebody who is exposed occupationally and perhaps shaking out his clothing, and washing his overalls, and so on.

ROSS: This white growth on the lung is a pleural plaque. It's harmless, but it's the direct result of breathing in asbestos fibres.

Margaret Lilly has one, and knows she could go on develop lung cancer, asbestosis, or mesothelioma.

MARGARET LILLY: I could very well end up, God forbid, but I could end up with what Owen has, asbestosis, or mesothelioma, which is about the worst scenario you can get.

ROSS: About two million fibres of asbestos can fit on to a pinhead. It's difficult to tell the difference between the dangerous white fibres, or the very dangerous blue ones. This test, which uses colour changes to identify the different fibres, reveals that blue asbestos is present in this sample. But, whatever the colour, there's no such thing as a safe asbestos fibre.

Dr BURNETT: Everybody who lives in an urban environment has asbestos bodies and fibres in their lungs. I don't know if there is any safe lower level of exposure. I don't think that that's clear. There is asbestos in the streets - it's generated by road traffic because the brake linings of the vehicles are made from asbestos. And if you've ever taken a brake drum off you'll see that there's a powder, a sort of dusty powder, and that's almost pure asbestos...and this is spread throughout the atmosphere.

ROSS: Julian Peto studies people. He's a statistician. Professor Peto has frightening evidence that work-related asbestos deaths will double in a Europe-wide epidemic.

Prof. JULIAN PETO: And it looks as though about a quarter of a million people are going to die of mesothelioma in western Europe over the next 30 or 35 years. In addition, of course, at least an equal number will die of lung cancer caused by asbestos. So it's probably about right to say that there are going to be about half a million asbestos-induced cancer deaths in western Europe.

ROSS: Mesothelioma deaths in Britain are set to rise from around 1400 a year to twice that number.

Prof PETO: The heaviest exposures were worse in 1900 and 1910 than they were in 1960 or 1970, but so much more asbestos was being used in the Sixties and Seventies that the total amount breathed in was much, much greater.

There were millions of people, literally, employed - particularly in the construction industry - who had quite heavy exposure. That's where the bulk of the diseases occur, and will continue to occur. A good friend of mine died about five years ago, and it's the most ghastly death to witness. I wasn't actually there on the day he died, but his brother told me afterwards that if he'd had a gun he would have shot him. I mean, it was just absolutely appalling. I saw him just two days before he died, he was breathing through an oxygen cylinder every third of fourth word.

We haven't seen a fraction of the cancers that are going to be caused by the exposure between 1960 and 1980. People my age have high rates [compared to] any previous generation, and my generation won't die out finally until about 2035 or 2040. And so the rates are going to remain high until then, at least until then. I mean, we don't know what residual exposure is still taking place with the asbestos that's left behind.

Dr HELENE IRVINE: There's no doubt that there'll be hundreds of thousands of pounds of asbestos in the fabric of many buildings that were all frequented on a daily basis. And when there are renovations to be undertaken there is a lot of concern on the part of the individuals who live or work in these buildings.

CHARLES KINNIBURGH (Asbestos Removal Contractors' Association): We're dealing with asbestos throughout the country. It's in hospitals, schools, domestic properties, obviously heavy industrial properties, factories and the like. So generally it's all round about us.

ROSS: This is how we deal with asbestos today. Similar precautions in the past would have saved countless lives.

CHARLES: These men are basically more exposed to asbestos than anybody else is likely to be. They're fully protected when they're working with asbestos. It's a necessity of this industry. The men go through a de-contamination procedure once they've been working with asbestos, and it ensures that they are completely safe when they are working with it.

The waste is properly packaged, placed in sealed containers, and disposed off to licensed landfill sites.

ROSS: Happy children with healthy young lungs in Clydebank, Scotland's asbestos black-spot. Better scientific understanding, and improved legislation should mean these youngsters have nothing to fear from the deadly mineral. It's their parents' and grandparents' generations who face the legacy.

Prof. PETO: In a sense you're looking at a tragedy that's already happened. The deaths of the future, there isn't anything that can be done about them. I mean, better treatment, palliation, hopefully has a curative therapy in the future, and obviously compensation is better than nothing. But it is a present state of knowledge - death can't really be prevented.

ROSS: Professor Peto's predictions make grim reading. Communities like Clydebank know only too well the real human cost that lies behind those statistics.

But now there may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon for patients suffering from one of the most deadly diseased caused by asbestos.

A wet and miserable day in Newcastle.

Yet, in this whole depressing story, it's here that Frontline Scotland found some hope. The Cancer Research Fund is financing work at Newcastle University. The team has come up with exciting results in cases of the incurable cancer - mesothelioma. A cocktail of drugs, one old and established mixed with a new and, as yet, unlicensed product from America, appears to have made a vital breakthrough.

Prof. HILARY CALVERT (Professor of Oncology, Newcastle University): The results have been quite unusually good for patients with mesothelioma. We've had about half the patients having a significant shrinkage of their tumour. And most of the patients have got a marked improvement in their symptoms. So this is the best result that I've seen in my career so far.

ROSS: Clinical trials involving 27 Tynesiders with mesothelioma have been taking place at Newcastle General Hospital. Alan Tait is one of the group.

ALAN TAIT: Well I was in the shipyards, and I did five apprenticeship there. And I came in contact with asbestos for about six months. But the major cause, I believe, was the fire service when we dealt with all types of fires - house fires, ship fires, farm fires, it was all over the place. The big danger was when we had a big fire and the place was burned down, and we turned the job over. The asbestos dust would still be on the ground, and when you put the jet on it to cool hot spots down, it would all come up with you.

ROSS: Six months ago Alan began to experience severe chest pain.

ALAN: They drained two and a half litres of fluid off my lung, and they suspected it then. About a fortnight later I was taken to the Freeman Hospital where they put a camera in, and took some more biopsies, and found out what it was.

ROSS: What went through your mind at that point?

ALAN: Oh...(upset)...that was the end of the world.

Dr ANDY HUGHES (Newcastle General Hospital): We had a very positive outcome from the trial, both in terms of response rate, and probably more importantly, in terms of the dramatic improvement that's been witnessed in a lot of patients' quality of life.

ALAN: I feel a lot better now. I mean, when I was ill I could only walk about 500 yards, maybe a bit more without having to stop. But now, I think I can go about two miles walking.

Prof. HILARY CALVERT: I think it's important though to add that we so far have no evidence that these drugs will cure people with mesothelioma. We are getting quite a lot of symptomatic relief and tumour shrinking, but we don't know that they will go away forever, and it's quite possible they will relapse and come back again.

ALAN: I'm just hoping they have cured it for good. I know they've stopped it growing. But, if it'll start again that...would be...I don't know...

ROSS: It's not a cure, but it is providing relief. So, when will Scottish patients get the benefit from this new research?

Prof. CALVERT: Currently there's a trial being done that compares this new drug with an old-fashioned drug, or more old-fashioned drug. When the results of that trial come through the regulatory bodies will decide whether they'll provide a license so that people can receive the grant. I think it would be two or three years from now that it would become generally available.

ROSS: Meanwhile, the legal battle goes on. In Edinburgh, a delegation from Clydeside Action on Asbestos have put their case calling for Scots law to be streamlined to MSPs, and the vice-convenor at the justice committee. But did they get anything more then sympathy?

GORDON JACKSON, QC, MSP (vice-convenor, justice committee): We can certainly deliver a lot more than just sympathy. I would hope we'd very soon have a debate on the issue. Again, I'm very strongly hoping that the justice committee will have a full inquiry, we'll do a full report. But I wouldn't want that to be thought as just more sympathy, more cosmetics. I would very much like to think that would have a very real effect both in the court and in the legislation so that there is proper justice being delivered here.

ROSS: Fewer and fewer of the people who develop asbestos-related illnesses in the next 20 years will have worked in the shipyards. Increasingly, there'll be builders, contractors, part-time workers, and even DIY enthusiasts. They might not be able to pin down their asbestos exposure to one particular employer. Professor Julian Peto believes that massive fines levied on all employers found guilty of exposing workers should be put in a pot to compensate all victims.

Prof. PETO: My personal view of compensation is that it ought to be much more generously funded by the government. If they decide the people have behaved illegally then they should be subject to massive fines. But at the moment it's a terrible lottery. If you're 'lucky enough' to have got mesothelioma by working in a shipyard for 20 years rather than in 10 different building jobs of two years each, then you can get compensation. But I is a lottery, and I mean, it's just a ghastly death whether you get it in a shipyard or whether you get it in a building yard.

OWEN LILLY: People are starting to waken to the fact that an epidemic has started in their midst. I hope that awareness continues to grow, and hope the anger that's associated with it continues to grow too, because the only way you'll get action from the government is through people's anger.

ROSS: Tom McKendrick is an angry man. He's Clydebank born and bred, a former shipyard worker, and one of Owen Lilly's oldest friends.

Tell me why you decided you wanted to do something like this?

TOM McKENDRICK (Artist): It's something that I obviously feel very passionate about, and something I'm very, very close to. Mostly my friends, and especially Owen, who's one of my oldest friends, has been afflicted by this. And it just seems to be that our age group has come of the age when the seeds that were planted in our lungs 30 years ago are now bearing the horrible fruits of disease.

ROSS: Tom is one of Scotland's leading artists, but this is more than just a work of art. It's a memorial, and an angry cry for justice.

TOM: Really... I take bits, I take just fragments, I take fragments of Owen's story, I take fragments of what he feels, what he talks about, how he perceives things, his discomfort, his attitude, and I just take little aspects of that, and I try and distil them. It will be a portrait in that it will be a composition of all things that affected him, and affected his life. I'm looking at his pain, and I'm looking at his anguish, and I'm looking at this kind of degeneration. And he trusts me to do something there. I just hope, in all honesty, that I can fulfil what he thinks I'm trying to achieve.

ROSS: Earlier today a petition demanding a fast track for compensation claims at a full government inquiry was delivered to the Scottish Parliament.

Owen Lilly's compensation case against John Browns and Turner and Newall has been scheduled for April next year.

Tom McKendrick's memorial to the victims of asbestos will be exhibited at the Royal Glasgow Institute later this month.

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See also:

30 Oct 00 | Scotland
Frontline Scotland
15 Sep 00 | Scotland
Asbestos damages claim settled
21 Jul 00 | Scotland
Grangemouth asbestos order
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