As Scots undertook the second bout of first footing since COVID-19 first took a grip of the UK in March 2020, my New Year wishes to my second family north of the border were unavoidably subdued this Hogmanay. Whilst Sir Walter Scott – whose semi-quincentennial will be marked as part of Scotland's 'Year of Stories' in 2022 – observed that 'each age has deemed the new-born year, the fittest time for festal cheer', the diagnosis of an advanced case of biphasic mesothelioma (the second-most common cell type of asbestos cancer) amongst one of their number understandably dampened the festive feeling.
For those unaware of the specifics – although the faint-hearted may wish to stop here – mesothelioma is a malignant tumour, caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres, which today are mostly common disturbed during construction or routine maintenance, and settle in the mesothelium (the protective membrane around vital organs in the chest and abdomen). These carcinogenic, thorn-like fibres, then create scars in this protective tissue, which can develop into cancerous cells.
Like so many affected by this epidemic of sorts, my friend – a true diamond, born in 1939 and a sturdy and long-standing staple of the 'Honest Toun' of Musselburgh – has been caught in the proliferation of asbestos-related conditions in Scotland, which currently has the highest global incidence of mesothelioma. Like 25% of all mesothelioma sufferers, he earned his crust in the construction and building maintenance industry, which Rory Stride (a PhD student at the University of Strathclyde, specialising in the impact of deindustrialisation on women textile workers) argues, undertook a 'conscious act of industrial violence, perpetrated against industrial workers and their families, prematurely ending the lives of millions'.
With the first Scottish companies manufacturing asbestos products being established in the 1870s – and more than 60 manufacturers operating in Scotland by 1914 – the country has now been gripped by the heat-resistant and naturally occurring fibrous silicate for a century and a half. In addition to causing more deaths per annum than Road Traffic Accidents and being the single greatest cause of work-related death in the UK, it is estimated that nearly 25,000 Scots will have died through exposure to asbestos by 2025, with some first manifesting symptoms of an asbestos-related disease up to 60 years after exposure to deadly fibres.
A British Pathé newsreel in 1942 promoted the numerous and 'wonderful' domestic uses of asbestos – including a shield for firefighting, fire-proof boots and patterned fire-proof curtains and furniture covers. However, tens of thousands of working people in shipyards and the construction industry are its primary victims, including, but by no means limited to, laggers, joiners, plumbers, plasterers and electricians. Likewise, the American military charity, MesotheliomaVets, calculate that approximately one-third of the 3,300 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in the United States every year are veterans, who were exposed to the toxic fibres on military bases.
Although male factory workers producing asbestos had been exposed to this weapons-grade toxin since the middle of the 19th century – and would be until the prohibition of the use and import of crocidolite and amosite asbestos in 1985 and white chrysotile asbestos in 1999 – women also suffered primary exposure in the workplace.
As Phyllis Craig (the chair of Action on Asbestos, better known by its former name, Clydeside Action on Asbestos) – who received an MBE in 2012 for 'services to sufferers of asbestos-related diseases' – told The National
in October 2019, Clydeside cases such as those of a 52-year-old Glaswegian woman whose mesothelioma had been attributed to her husband's work in the shipyards, as a doctor had neglected to notice that she had been employed in the Cape Asbestos factory, highlight the need not to forget those women who contracted their illness in their own place of work.
Likewise, as the 2019 play Fibres
(staged by Glasgow's Citizens Theatre and the Stellar Quines company) portrayed, 'wives and weans' in particular epicentres of asbestos production, including the West of Scotland, could also contract asbestos-related conditions through secondary inhalation.
Asbestos has been found in over 3,000 day-to-day items – such domestic appliances (including hairdryers), automotive parts, as well as talcum powder and children's toys – but it was as a result of the construction of the 'New Jerusalem' after 1945 that Scotland's buildings and public places became riddled with asbestos. The expansion of the state and the resulting need to construct hundreds of municipal buildings (including power stations, hospitals and even laundrettes) in addition to clearing and rebuilding bomb damage after the Second World War heightened demand for this easy and relatively inexpensive fire-retardant from manufacturers in and around Glasgow (such as Cape Asbestos and the Marinite Company) as well as Russia, Canada, and modern-day Zimbabwe.
Likewise, the Scottish Education Department's issuing of Circular No.600
in October 1965 – which invited local authorities to 'further the reorganisation of secondary schooling in Scotland on comprehensive lines' – resulted in another national municipal building programme, completed at break-neck speed, as junior secondary schools were incorporated into senior secondaries and brand new comprehensive schools were built across the country.
It is estimated that 13,000 schools across the British Isles may have been built using materials which contained asbestos, with 75% of schools built in Scotland since 1945 containing asbestos and approximately 200 to 300 people dying every year as a result of having been exposed to asbestos in schools.
In all, it has been reported that more than 1,600 Scottish school and university buildings are yet to have poisonous material removed, with campaigners calling for stringent limits of less than 100 asbestos fibres per cubic metre, compared to the 10,000 fibres per cubic metre which the Health and Safety Executive permitted as recently as 2017.
Although the purpose of Scotland's 'Year of Stories' is to acknowledge the country's literary 'storytelling tradition, from Robert Burns to The Beano
' and mark significant cultural landmarks including the 75th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, my contemporary historian's Max Bygraves: I wanna tell you a story
impulse makes me think that we are missing a trick and potentially promoting an injustice by not focusing on the remarkable stories of those who built the Scotland of today.
In the year in which academics and physicians will note the 340th anniversary of Bernardino Ramazzini's appointment to the chair of the Theory of Medicine at the University of Modena – where he published the foundational text of occupational medicine, De Morbis Artificum Diatriba
, in 1700 – it would seem particularly apt to shine a light on the oral histories of those facing the greatest challenge that mortal man can face, in the premature end of their own lives, all because of what they did for their work.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly