Asbestos contamination continues to be a concern for community residents near the former site of Turner & Newall, once the world’s largest asbestos textile manufacturer based in Rochdale, Greater Manchester. A heightened sense of asbestos awareness tends to go hand-in-hand with a well-founded fear of the potential health risks amongst those living within sight of Britain’s former, notorious asbestos ‘blackspots’.

In the present case, the legacy of Britain’s asbestos past – when more than five million tons of the mineral fibres were used between the 1940s and the final asbestos ban in 1999 – resonates deeply with the area and its residents. In a bid to calm local fears, plans have just been approved by the borough council to carry out testing for asbestos contamination around the 72 acre site, once the home of the world’s biggest asbestos spinning and weaving factory.

Surrounding woodland is heavily contaminated

For more than a decade, the area’s community campaign group have repeatedly asked for air monitoring “to establish the facts so that safe and accountable decisions can be made.” The group have “grave concerns” that the council tests are little more than a PR exercise designed to “reassure residents with a predetermined outcome.”

The view of the campaigners is that the land is a “toxic blight” , and only the verdict of an independent and impartial body would protect Rochdale citizens from hazardous exposures. Official reports have previously confirmed that the site contains tens of thousands of tonnes of waste asbestos, and local residents claim that the surrounding woodland is heavily contaminated with asbestos dust fibres visible everywhere on the ground.

Discussions at the Houses of Parliament

The group has lobbied far and wide and spoken with environmental, scientific, technical and medical experts in their bid for action to be taken on the contamination. Discussions and meetings have even taken place in the Houses of Parliament, the European Parliament and the European Social Forum.

The site of the former asbestos textile factory was considered for development as a housing estate of 650 houses as far back as 2004 but the goal of the campaign group is for a careful and thorough demolition of the remaining factory buildings with the site capped as an extension to the present nature reserve. A brief look at the company and its controversial use of asbestos may reveal why the local community remain sensitive and alert to the potential deadly health risks.

Incidence of lung cancer among asbestos workers

In 1879, Turner & Newall was the first textile manufacturer to weave asbestos cloth with power-driven machinery but as early as 1898, government factory inspectors were warning that asbestos “easily demonstrated danger to the health of the workers”. In 1924, the death of the world’s first asbestosis victim was named as local Rochdale worker, Nellie Kershaw, aged just 33 years. But it wasn’t until 1936 that the first mesothelioma cancer victim was recognised by the company who was both an employee worker and lived locally.

By 1947, a national factory inspector’s report emphasised the incidence of lung cancer among asbestos workers but it was only in 1955 when a study was actually carried out in Rochdale that a link between asbestos and cancer was established. The 1950s, 60s and 70s are considered the peak years of asbestos use when around 170,000 tons of mineral fibres was imported each year. The first asbestos ban was introduced in the mid 1980s and by the late 1990s, the company was taken over but went into administration in 2001.

Cast a long shadow over the local community

Since the business ceased, many former workers exposed to asbestos at the various owned sites have been involved in asbestosis claims, and in 2004, the site was sold to property developers who subsequently requested the firm to leave by 2012.

The tragic legacy of asbestos use in Greater Manchester, as so starkly demonstrated by the history of the Turner & Newall factory in Rochdale, continues to cast a long shadow over the local community. To date, an estimated 50,000 people have lost their lives to mesothelioma in the area, and between 2008 and 2013, there has been a 55 per cent increase in the number of patients diagnosed with the fatal cancer,  and 138 people alone, diagnosed in just one year across the region.