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Even though the United Kingdom officially banned asbestos in 1999, the toxin continues to claim lives. Though no new uses or imports of the mineral are allowed, it still remains in many schools and older buildings causing many to unknowingly be exposed. Since there is a long latency period after exposure before symptoms appear, millions are still at risk to develop mesothelioma and other asbestos-caused diseases in their lifetime.
In 2014, there were 2,717 new cases of mesothelioma in the UK. This number is on par with the number of new cases each year in the United States, where asbestos is still not banned. While it is a rare disease and the number of cases may not appear alarmingly high, the incidence rate in the UK has increased by 71% since the 1990s. Mesothelioma is preventable, and there’s still a lot more work to be done worldwide to save lives from asbestos.
Over the years, the UK has said goodbye to several well-known talents because of this rare disease. For many of them, it’s uncertain how they were exposed to the toxin, which shows the continued importance of raising awareness for this mineral and the dangerous diseases it can cause.
George Hunt (February 27, 1922 – 1987)
George Hunt was a footballer from Swindon. At the young age of 14, he dropped out of school and began working at the Great Western Railway Works, also known as Swindon Works. After serving in the Army during World War II, Hunt had the opportunity to play football professionally and joined the Swindon Town Club. He made his debut in 1947 and played over 300 games before retiring in 1958. Hunt returned to Swindon Works fulltime and coached soccer occasionally on the side.
Unfortunately, his time at Swindon Works led to his devastating diagnosis. Railroad workers were frequently exposed to asbestos, as the mineral was used widely throughout the train because of its heat resistance. Over such a long career at the railroad, Hunt faced prolonged exposure to the toxin, which greatly increased his chances of developing mesothelioma.
So many workers at Swindon Works were exposed and ultimately diagnosed with mesothelioma that they sometimes referred to this rare cancer as “Swindon’s disease.” Hunt was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma and passed away in 1987.
Dame Ann Ebsworth (May 19, 1937 – April 4, 2002)
Dame Ann Ebsworth was a barrister and judge of the High Court. She was appointed to the High Court in 1992, becoming the first woman to ever be appointed to the queen’s bench division. At the time, she was only one of four women among the over 100 justices at the High Court. Ebsworth’s first priority was justice, and her colleagues lauded her for her fairness. She aimed high throughout her career and earned appointments in many courts of law.
Unfortunately, her successful career in the courtroom ended in early retirement shortly after she was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2000. Despite growing weaker, she continued to teach students who needed help and advocate the importance of justice.
Ebsworth was likely exposed to asbestos throughout her childhood, as she grew up in a military family. Her father served as an officer in the Royal Marines, and the family frequently traveled to different barracks. Asbestos was frequently used throughout the military, on various vessels and in buildings on base. Veterans make up a large proportion of mesothelioma diagnoses, and Ebsworth likely had secondhand asbestos exposure from her father’s various interactions with the mineral.
Michael Coney (September 28, 1932 – November 4, 2005)
Science fiction writer Michael Coney had his first story published in 1969 in a science fiction magazine, with several other short stories published in British and American publications shortly after. Throughout the 1970s, Coney established himself as one of the leading British science fiction writers, which many of his critics owe to his move to the West Indies for a fresh start.
Though critics claim his period of intense creativity ended when his family moved to Canada, his novels and short stories were still loved by his audience and critics alike. Some of his most beloved work include his novels Mirror Image and Glass Children.
It remains unclear how Coney was first exposed to asbestos which later led to a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis. In his last interview, Coney described how debilitating the disease was and how he struggled with his concentration. He said handling the disease took over his ability to write. When he was diagnosed, Coney decided to release his latest short stories for free online. His last novel, I Remember Pallahaxi, was published posthumously in 2007.
Christie Hennessy (November 19, 1945 – December 11, 2007)
Christie Hennessy was an Irish folk singer and songwriter, though he suffered from severe dyslexia which made him unable to read or write. His most famous song, “Don’t Forget Your Shovel,” has often been described as an alternative national anthem for Ireland.
Hennessy realized his exposure to the toxin occurred as a result of his work in London as a painter and decorator. He worked with this company from the young age of 15, and likely faced prolonged exposure from the different buildings and jobsites he worked in.
He was later diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, and sadly died at a London hospice at just 62. At the time, Hennessy had been working on new music and planning a tour. His wife, Gill Ross, recognized their legal rights and decided to pursue action against his employer for their negligence which ultimately led to the singer’s death. With the help of qualified mesothelioma lawyers, they were able to reach a settlement to assist with the high medical costs associated with the disease.
John MacDougall (December 8, 1947 – August 13, 2008)
John MacDougall was a Member of Parliament from 2005 until his death for Glenrothes. He previously served in the House of Commons for Central Fife after the 2001 election. Before he began his career in politics, MacDougall worked in shipyards. He first started caulking riveters and eventually transitioned to work at an oil rig as a boilermaker.
His asbestos exposure certainly occurred during his career before he transitioned to politics. Boilermakers were frequently exposed to airborne asbestos because of the nature of their work, especially when repairing older boilers that likely had damaged asbestos insulation.
MacDougall was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma in 2007. In later years, he revealed the severity of his disease, explaining he had his lung removed in the hopes of removing the cancer. In later interviews, his daughter Julie explained his decline was rapid, but he never gave up hope. After his passing, Julie created the John MacDougall Mesothelioma Trust in his honor in 2010. Their goals are to raise awareness for this rare disease and help support important mesothelioma research to hopefully one day find a cure.
Ian Cundy (April 23, 1945 – May 7, 2009)
Ian Cundy served as the Bishop of Peterborough from 1996 until his death. He was held in high regard for his education and varied skills. Throughout his career, Cundy strived to create better unity in the church. He is particularly known for his support of female priests, which created some tension with other church members.
He was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2007, and by 2008 announced his plans to retire early because of the severity of his disease. Although he underwent chemotherapy, the aggressive cancer rapidly spread. Ian passed away shortly after collapsing at a family event. His wife, Jo, released a book in 2014 about their life together and her journey in letting him go.
Though asbestos is banned in the UK, there is still a lot of work to be done to help change the statistics and better prevent mesothelioma.