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Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK hold protests demanding former insulation board manufacturer Cape pays £10m towards mesothelioma research

I recently had the privilege of attending the #CapeMustPay demo, outside the offices of the current incarnation of the company formerly known as the Cape Asbestos Company, and Cape Plc.

In the 1960s, asbestos was mined by Cape in South Africa and exported to the UK where it was turned into myriad of different products, mostly used in the construction industry. One of the most common of Cape’s products was Asbestolux.

The use of Asbestolux and its dangers

Asbestolux was an asbestos-containing board; soft, pliable, and exceptionally good at insulating and fireproofing any number of items. It contained deadly asbestos fibres, most commonly amosite or brown asbestos fibres, a known carcinogen.

Legislation originally drafted in 1937, and strengthened in 1961, required an employer who was exposing their workforce to dust in quantities likely to be ‘injurious or offensive’, in a factory or workshop setting, to take ‘all practicable measures’ to protect their employees from breathing in the dust. 

However, these regulations were largely ignored by industry until much later in the 1960s and early 1970s, when precautions started to be taken; by then, for many men and women, it was too little, too late, and their fate was already sealed.

Legal claims against Cape

Decades later, the men and women made ill from inhaling the asbestos produced by Cape brought legal claims against the company, to try and obtain financial security for their loved ones. Cape reacted by arguing that it didn't know that the asbestos was dangerous, and that it had, in any event, removed asbestos from its products by 1978.

In 2017, in a legal action brought by companies trying to recoup compensation payments they had made to former employees, Cape disclosed papers that revealed exactly what it knew about asbestos and its dangers. 

These papers were at risk of disappearing, until the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK launched a bid in the Supreme Court to obtain and preserve the papers as public documents. The case was eventually successful, thanks to the dogged persistence of a small band of campaigners, and now the papers are available for everyone to read

Through the course of the action, Cape spent millions of pounds on legal fees, to try and prevent the papers coming into the public domain; it’s not hard to see why. The papers say that Cape knew that asbestos was harmful in the 1950s, but the firm dismissed the idea of applying warning labels as it was concerned such warnings would affect profitability. It continued to spend enormous sums of money, lobbying and campaigning to hide the evidence of the harm in order to protect their profits. 

Ultimately, this affected efforts to regulate the use of asbestos. Cape ignored the evidence of its own surveys and data to provide false reassurance to the Government regarding the dangers posed by asbestos. The papers also showed that Cape continued to manufacture asbestos-containing board until 1980.

Forum demands Cape help fund mesothelioma research

The Forum is now demanding that Cape pay £10 million towards research into mesothelioma - a terminal form of cancer linked to exposure to asbestos, often decades earlier. The £10 million feels like a tiny fraction of the profits Cape made from the sale of the asbestos products, with the UK now having the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world.

Demonstrations held

As I stood at the demo, with a small but significant number of people who have been directly affected by asbestos exposure, it struck me that change almost never comes from the top down; from big business looking at their own practices and deciding to make changes for the good of society or the benefit of their employees. 

Instead, change comes from small bands of dedicated people, demanding that businesses look at the harm they are causing, or the wrong they are perpetrating in the name of profits; they shine a light on the questionable business practices; they raise awareness of the boardroom decisions that are taken, not in the interests of the greater good, but in the interests of a few individuals; and they hold businesses to account through legal actions. 

Gradually, more people start to question the motives behind such decisions, and the demand for change or reparation grows until businesses are forced to react, and the workplaces become safer for those employees still in work today.


I was proud to stand with the Forum on Friday; because, by continuing to give a voice to the sick, the dying and the bereaved, we can increase pressure on Cape and other similar companies to begin to change; to acknowledge the wrongs of the past, and to make a contribution towards finding a cure for the many thousands of people worldwide, who have been affected by asbestos-related disease.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and families affected by mesothelioma and other diseases at our dedicated asbestos-related disease section.