On Saturday November 19th, 1983, organisers, activists, and trade unionists from across the UK met at the Queen’s Walk Community Centre in Nottingham. They had gathered to discuss an urgent environmental health issue: asbestos.
Asbestos is a generic term for a group of silicate minerals. Naturally abundant and with a fibrous structure that makes it particularly adaptable, it was widely used during the twentieth century in building materials, car brake pads, and consumer products like potholders and tablecloths. Due to its notable insulating and fireproofing properties, the asbestos industry pushed the idea that it was indispensable to modern life—it was the so-called “magic mineral.”
But from the first days of the industry in the late 1800s, it was clear that asbestos was particularly bad for the health of the workers who mined, manufactured, and used it. Asbestos fibres fragment into smaller and smaller shards. Gliding past the natural defences in the nose and throat, these microscopic filaments can penetrate deep into the body. Asbestos miners and factory workers suffered chronic scarring of the lungs—in the 1930s this condition was named asbestosis. In the 1940s and 50s, as the industry grew thanks to the post-war housing boom and the widespread use of asbestos insulation panels and asbestos cement, it became clear that the material also caused lung and throat cancer. By the late 1960s, another cancer had been conclusively linked to asbestos. Mesothelioma is an aggressive and incurable cancer that forms in the lining that surrounds the lungs and stomach. It has a long latency period, anywhere from 15 to 50 years. The only known cause is asbestos and it can occur after relatively brief exposure. In short, by the mid-1970s it was becoming clear that asbestos represented not only a serious occupational hazard, but an environmental one too.
In 1978, Nancy Tait founded the Society for the Prevention of Industrial Diseases (SPAID) from her home in Enfield. Tait’s husband, William, had died in 1967 from mesothelioma. Another outspoken critic of the industry was Alan Dalton. He was a member of the radical science group the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS). In 1979 the BSSRS published his “worker/community guide” Asbestos, Killer Dust. Tait and Dalton condemned the flawed regulations governing the industry and the toothlessness of the Factory Inspectorate (later incorporated into the Health and Safety Commission), as well as the government’s complacency in the face of a looming disaster. They were also critical of the trade union movement, which was locked in an acrimonious internal battle: jobs versus health. Several union branches had organised around safety concerns and called for a ban on the material, but in the context of the steady decline of British industrial manufacturing, the national leaderships were reluctant to follow suit.
Public attention to the risks of asbestos ebbed and flowed in the late 1970s and into the early 80s. Everything changed in July 1982, when Yorkshire Television broadcast Alice—A Fight for Life. The two-hour documentary, directed by John Willis, followed the grim plight of 47-year-old Alice Jefferson. She had worked at an asbestos textiles factory in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire for nine months when she was a teenager. Twenty years later, she was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Alice is a broad-ranging investigation of the global asbestos industry, yet the programme is mainly remembered as the unflinching account of Jefferson’s last weeks. It was watched by nearly six million people and its impact was immediate. For many, vague or dimly remembered concerns about asbestos suddenly came into sharper focus, particularly given the broader implications of the asbestos-mesothelioma link. Jefferson’s illness and the suffering it entailed seemed to many viewers shockingly disproportionate with her brief employment, and cast doubt on the industry’s repeated assertions that the material was safe.
The list of organisations represented at the November 1983 conference provides a good indication of the rapid growth of the anti-asbestos movement in this period. Several trade union branches and a handful of regional trades union councils were there, but most of those attending were from housing charities, tenants’ rights groups, housing co-ops, and anti-asbestos campaign groups. These ranged from the relatively well-established SPAID, Shelter National Housing Aid Trust, and Kensington Law Centre to hyper-local tenants’ groups which had mobilised after the broadcast of Alice the previous year. The Adolphus and Idonia Street Asbestos Campaign, for example, had formed on the small post-war estate next to Deptford Station in south-east London. Groups from across London and from Hull, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol, Sheffield, Milton Keynes, Leicester, and South Wales were represented.
Marie Pytharas would become an important figure in the anti-asbestos movement. She opened the conference with an account of the campaign she had led on the Loughborough estate in south London, after residents had discovered that their flats contained large amounts of asbestos. The estate had been built between 1954 and 1957 by the London County Council. With its mix of low- and high-rise blocks and its tree-lined open spaces, its design had justifiably drawn praise. But in 1979 the Lambeth Environmental Health Department and local councillors called the estate’s Tenants’ Association to a secret meeting—they revealed that the infill panels beneath the windows contained an especially dangerous type of asbestos called crocidolite. They proposed covering the panels with waterproof plywood, but many had already been damaged, potentially releasing millions of fibres.
Pytharas recounted how, faced with “an old type [tenants’ association] who hobnobbed with councillors” and were downplaying the risks, she and several others had formed an independent asbestos action group. They contacted Nancy Tait, Alan Dalton, and Shelter for advice and guidance. “We went to every Council Committee and started to wear them down,” Pytharas recounted. The Council eventually agreed to their demands, but the group still had to fight for the asbestos to be removed when the flats were empty and for the Council to use unionised and properly trained workers to do it.
After Pytharas’ introduction and a presentation from an environmental health officer on safe asbestos removal, there were many successes, as well as significant challenges to share. The rest of the conference comprised workshops on making effective demands and the tactics to achieve them, the roles of tenants’ groups and trade unions, and the relationship between local and national action.
In the final session, participants discussed the general demands for a national campaign, eventually agreeing on three: an admission from the government that all asbestos is deadly (the industry was pushing the theory that only certain types were dangerous, a tactic it continues to use to market the material in the Global South); a ban on its import, manufacture, and use; and government funding to enable local authorities to safely remove as much of it as possible. A working party was formed—this would soon become the People’s Asbestos Action Campaign.
The conference then closed with two acknowledgements that placed the asbestos issue in a broader context. The first was that “asbestos was just one of many serious defects affecting council housing, all of which needed a massive input of resources from government to protect the health and conditions of tenants.” The second was that for the thousands of homeless people in the country, “government finance was needed to meet their basic right to a permanent home.”
The timing of the Nottingham conference was auspicious. By 1983, it was clear that the British asbestos industry was already in terminal decline. From a peak in the early 1970s, demand had fallen sharply. This was due in part to growing safety concerns and the availability of substitute materials but was mostly driven by the steady decline of industrial manufacturing—by the early 80s the industrial markets for asbestos products were a fraction of their former size. Alice had hastened its demise, but the writing was already on the wall.
By bringing together a varied cast of campaigners, activists, and trade unionists, the nascent anti-asbestos movement highlighted the connections between workers’ rights and public health. The movement would need all the energy and expertise it could muster, given the broader political context. Underpinning the conference was a general understanding that tackling the asbestos disaster required strict environmental and occupational health regulations, well-trained and unionised removal workers, and properly resourced local authorities, all underwritten by a commitment toward environmental protections, public health, decent social housing, and the very idea of the public realm. In other words, precisely the things that Margaret Thatcher, who had recently begun her second term as Prime Minister, was committed to undermining and dismantling.
The anti-asbestos movement lobbied tirelessly for a national ban, and many groups turned towards the difficult and time-consuming task of supporting victims and their families with benefits claims and compensation cases against the employers who had knowingly exposed them to harm. It would take until 1999 for the material to be banned in the UK. There is still no coordinated plan for its removal from homes, workplaces, and public buildings. The charity Mesothelioma UK estimates that 94 per cent of hospitals and 80 per cent of schools in the UK contain asbestos, along with tens of thousands of buildings owned by local councils. The recent controversy over the dangers of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in schools and other public buildings brought asbestos into the news once again. RAAC does not contain asbestos, but there are concerns that repairing it could disturb the material. Forty years on from the first national tenants’ and trades union conference, the asbestos disaster is far from over.