Monday, October 18, 2004

Collateral Damage: Asbestos Wives

Occupational diseases don't stop at the plant gate. The British Guardian has a disturbing story about the wives of asbestos workers who died painfully of mesothelioma decades later from washing their clothes after work:
Yvonne Power, 49, has always hated housework, and this probably helped save her life. While her older sister, Evelyn, was helping scrub her father's overalls, Yvonne was turning handstands in the garden, or playing with the toy wooden roundabout her father had made for her.

Her father, John, was good with his hands. For 25 years, from the early 60s, he was a foreman at Cape, in Cowley, Oxford. His job was to cut asbestos boards for ceiling panels. He died of mesothelioma, the asbestos-related cancer, 11 years ago, at the age of 67. Evelyn died of mesothelioma in 1996, aged 45, and her mother, Barbara Fitt died of mesothelioma, aged 71, last month.

Experts believe that mother and daughter contracted the disease from washing John's overalls, an innocent enough activity, you would think, but not when they are covered in tiny asbestos particles. Barbara thought she was doing nothing more serious than the weekend wash. But those days at the old Belfast sink were the beginning of the end. "I remember dad coming home and his hair was quite white," says Yvonne, "but he didn't have grey hair, he had dark." She can also remember him leaning over the kitchen sink, bare-backed, while her mother carefully picked out asbestos fibres with a pair of needle-tip tweezers.
Mesothelioma is a fatal and extremely painful cancer of the lining of the lungs, that is only caused by exposure to asbestos. The disease can develop from 15-60 years after the dust is inhaled. Around 1,800 people die each year from mesothelioma in Great Britain and "domestic exposure" cases account for around 5% of these deaths. And cases of mesothelioma are increasing.

The problem:
There were no showers or areas for the men to change. Instead, they would bring the near-invisible needle-like fibres home. Now their wives and daughters are dying horrible deaths as a result. "These were men just trying to earn a living," says Yvonne, "just trying to look after their families."
And to add insult to injury, the wives have a harder time getting benefits, and the benefits aren't equal to what former workers receive:
"Because the wife was not employed by the company, you are generally looking for the public liability insurer, rather than the employer liability insurer," explains Moore. "That is a significant difference, because public liability is not compulsory and never has been."

Contracting an industrial disease at home also means you need to prove exposure. You need a witness - the husband, say, who brought the dust home. If you no longer have a husband, then you don't have a claim, unless you can find other witnesses.... If you contract the disease at home, you are not entitled to the same disability benefit as those who were exposed at work. This can amount to around £120 a week. Nor do these women qualify for a pneumonicosis benefit scheme, set up by the government in the late 70s for people with long latency illnesses who are not able to bring claims because their employers have gone out of business. This can be a lump sum of around £40,000.
Domestic exposures are also a serious problem in the United States, and studies have also shown asbestos disease in the children of asbestos workers.