The Asbestos Legacy

In 1972, as part of my Chemistry degreee I had a one-year internship at British Belting and Asbestos (BBA) in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire. BBA’s main product was brake and clutch linings (Mintex).

By that time the dangers of asbestos had been recognised but it was still in common usage, the main focus being keeping down dust levels in factories where it was produced. I worked in BBA’s Industrial Health Unit, headed by Dr Ross Hunt who seemed genuinely concerned that effective monitoring was carried-out but who, of course, was employed by BBA.

The IHU main function was to test employees lung function and to measure levels of dust throughout the factories (there were others in Leeds and Spennymoor). It also assessed exposure by “ashing” lung tissue samples (i.e. burning away the carbon tissue leaving the asbestos fibres) and counting the number and type of fibres under a microscope. Asbestosis develops many years (up to 50) after exposure.

The lungs were removed (after death) and stored in clear plastic bags, stacked in the basement. It was noticeable that most were very black since there is a high correlation between smoking and asbestosis and  I remember that in November 1972 there was a surge in deaths of ex-employees – around 30. Spen valley is not a particularly healthy place, it has a damp micro-climate often misty/foggy. I suspect that the combination of weather, smoking and exposure to asbestos contributed to lung conditions and that many deaths were attributed to bronchitis/asthma, masking the true scale of the asbestos problem.

Also related to asbestos exposure is mesothelioma which is responsible for around 2500 recorded deaths per year in the UK. Four years ago we were visited by my wife’s cousin from Australia. He had been diagnosed with asbestosis (he had worked as a lift engineer – asbestos in the brake linings). On returning to Australia he had tests for mesothelioma, was diagnosed and was dead within a year.

With the decline in the use of asbestos, together with the long latency we are now at “peak asbestosis” – the number of cases is now likely to decline but the suffering experienced by people who have lost their spouses early will continue for many years.

At BBA, it didn’t take me long to spot that other potential health hazards were not being monitored, specifically the use of chemicals. I proposed to Ross that I should conduct an investigation and he agreed. Various “nasty” chemicals were used with little thought to the effect on workers. Phenol-formaldehyde resins were used to “bake” clutch linings and created a severe hazard when oven doors were opened. Dead rats were found on the factory floor – they had been running along the beams and overcome by rising fumes.

The worst chemical I found was MbOCA (methylene-bis-ortho-chloro-aniline). This was used to cure belting and came in a pellet form. The pellets had to be melted in a glass beaker in an oven – alongside the lunch-time pork pies! I was a “young chemist” still an undergraduate but knew enough to know that organic chemicals with “active sites” (e.g. electron concentrations) should be viewed with suspicion and anilines had been known for many years to cause bladder cancer. Nearby Halifax was the centre of aniline dyestuff production. I made my concerns about MbOCA known to both BBA and the Factory Inspectorate (now HSE) but it was not until recently that MbOCA was recognised as a carcinogen.

I was prompted to write this piece by the death of Jo Cox – it made me remember Spen Valley and the people I worked with there. By the end of my second year studying chemistry I had decided that working with chemicals was too dangerous and not for me so I migrated towards mathematical chemistry and then into computing. I confess that in the intervening years I have not thought much about the Spen valley – I mostly remember it to be a dank miserable place and apart from one trip to Sugden I have never been back.

In researching this piece it is clear that for many years asbestos and rubber manufacturing trade associations – like the smoking lobby – have sought to distort the impact of asbestos and MbOCA. The link to the Mintex article is fairly damning.

Any asbestosis or mesothelioma support workers / lawyers who need assistance are welcome to contact me. I am @m2m_johnlewis on twitter.

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2 comments

  1. Hi, unfortunately Ross died when i was very young. Can I ask, what was he like to work with?

    1. Hi, I worked for him in 1971-72. He was very supportive and clearly cared about the people who worked at BBA. The industrial health unit focussed on Asbestos but I discovered there were some quite nasty chemicals being used. I made a fuss about it and he supported my investigation, which upset some of the senior management. I was probably a pain in the arse.

      I liked him. He drove a green vauxhall estate 2300 very fast.

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