UK asbestos maker withheld information on material’s risks, court papers show

According to documents, Cape played down dangers and lobbied for warning labels to be tempered

All types of asbestos have been banned in the UK since 1999. Photograph: David Gee/Alamy

One of the UK’s biggest manufacturers of asbestos and the industry bodies that it co-founded historically withheld information on risks posed by the carcinogenic material, playing down the dangers while lobbying the government for product warnings to be tempered, according to documents released after a lengthy court battle.

A lawyer who acted for the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK in its fight to obtain the documents about Cape compared its behaviour to the tobacco industry’s former refusal to admit evidence of harms from smoking while its own research showed the opposite.

Despite all types of asbestos being banned in the UK since 1999, it still kills thousands of people every year.

According to the court documents, a partner company of Cape’s was considering a warning label on asbestos products in 1958, but Cape advised it that “a caution label on our products and none on [our competitors] would make our selling efforts most difficult”.

They also state that in 1969, Cape’s group medical adviser accepted in a document that the fatal cancer mesothelioma could be caused by “short and possibly small” exposure and that “no type of asbestos proved innocent”. In the same year, a research review by the Asbestos Research Council (ARC), of which Cape was a founding member, accepted the link between asbestos and mesothelioma, stating: “Elimination of the dust hazard is therefore the only answer.”

Nevertheless, when Cape began to label its product in 1976 with a “take care with Asbestos” warning, it said “breathing asbestos dust can damage health”, but made no reference to the risk of mesothelioma, the documents show.

Additionally, from 1966, the ARC successfully lobbied the government for regulation of asbestos products to be on a “maximum allowable concentration” basis rather than the “no dust policy” that had been proposed.

The forum says the documents also show Cape’s in-house sampling data threw up significantly higher dust counts than industry standards for accepted levels of exposure, but data unfavourable to Cape was withheld.

At the same time, the company provided reassurances about asbestos. A 1976 booklet by the Asbestos Information Committee, of which Cape was also a founding member, said: “The normal use of asbestos products should not be a cause for anxiety.”

In light of the information in the documents, the forum is demanding that Cape apologise and make a £10m donation towards mesothelioma research.

The forum’s chair, Joanne Gordon, said: “We believe victims and their families deserve this by way of an apology from Cape for their deliberate deception and shamelessly causing deaths, adding insult by vehemently defending cases.”

The documents originate from litigation brought against Cape on behalf of insurers by who had settled employers’ liability claims resulting from workers’ exposure to asbestos and who wanted to recoup some of their outlay.

The case was settled before judgment, but Graham Dring, then chair of the forum, successfully fought a three-year battle for the forum to access the court documents. Cape resisted disclosure, taking the case to the supreme court, but Dring succeeded in setting a legal precedent allowing written material placed before a court to be seen by a non-party.

Harminder Bains, partner at Leigh Day, and whose father died of mesothelioma, acted for the forum on a pro bono basis for three years. She said she felt “revulsion and anger” when going through the documents. “They clearly show that Cape knew of the high risk of fatal disease, yet deliberately withheld information and lobbied the government to protect their profits,” she said. “As a result of their greed, many men and women, including my father, have lost their lives.

“This cover-up would not have come to the light had it not been for the forum’s persistence.”

A spokesperson for Cape said: “Cape was taken over in 2017 and its current management cannot comment on this matter, based on historical events that occurred over 40 years ago. However, Cape remains fully committed to the scheme of arrangement that was put in place and approved by a UK court to provide compensation payouts and will continue to meet all its obligations associated with that scheme.”

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