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Section two: Life and death in Belfast
TOPIC SECTION:
Life and death in Belfast
Mesothelioma was once considered a rare tumour. In the mid twentieth cen
Image:Samples of lung tissue from case number 51 in Dr Petere Elmes' work
Samples of lung tissue from case number 51 in Dr Petere Elmes' work
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
tury, however, it appeared to become more common in certain regions and cities, including Belfast - a city of 1.25 million inhabitants dependent on shipbuilding and other heavy industries. During the 1950s a young pathologist, Dr Elliott McCaughey, discovered 15 cases of mesothelioma there. A few years later Dr Peter Elmes and Professor Owen Wade treated two additional Belfast cases as medical emergencies. Aware of Chris Wagner’s research into mesothelioma in South Africa, these two medical men were curious as to why two cases of this ‘rare’ disease should have appeared at the same medical unit within a year.
In their initial study, Elmes and Wade began to take detailed occupational histories of 42 patients wh
Image: A whole lung showing scarring from the inhalation of asbestos fibres
A whole lung showing scarring from the inhalation of asbestos fibres
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
o were diagnosed with mesothelioma of the pleura’. While this would have been extremely difficult to research in migrant communities, this task was easier in Belfast with its stable working population. Assisted by two trained social workers, Yvonne Dudgeon and Marion Simpson, Elmes and Wa
A quarter of the male population who had lived and died in the research area had evidence of asbestos in their lungs
de demonstrated an association between occupational exposure to asbestos and mesothelioma. Unlike Chris Wagner’s South African study, where cases were plotted on a map, there was no indication that the Belfast patients had lived in any particular area. However, the researchers did identify groups who seemed to be especially vulnerable because of their occupations.

These most vulnerable workers included laggers, who insulated the newly constructed ships with asbestos. It was not uncommon for several generations of one family to follow the trade. Neither was it uncommon for those men dying prematurely to leave the women dependent on the remaining men. Worryingly, there was no sign that changes in working conditions had had any effect on the death rate. Even more disturbing was the high incidence of exposure to asbestos in Elmes’s and Wade’s control group. A quarter of the male population who had lived and died in the research area had evidence of asbestos in their lungs. The population at risk of developing asbestos-related disease has been revised upwards in more recent years.

 
 
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Section one: Asbestos and Africa
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The first medical links between mesothelioma and asbestos were made in South Africa, the only country in the world to mine the three main types of asbestos.  > more

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Section three: Fireproofing industrial society
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Asbestos appeared the perfect product for a rapidly industrialising world. It helped prevent fires and its proliferation was linked to a reduced incidence of fire-related deaths in the western world.  > more
 
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