It is a little known fact that 1930s German medical research was the first in the world to recognise the occupational link between many harmful substances and cancer.
Nazi scientists proposed a link between cigarettes and cancer at least 30 years before the famous US Surgeon General report in 1964 and of course Hitler was notoriously anti-smoking.
But perhaps the most interesting area of German research relates to occupational illness. Hitler’s scientists made the connection between rock dust and silicosis during the 1930s. Screening and precautions were put in place for miners. Most remarkable of all is the research work done in Nazi Germany on asbestos. The rest of the world was still in thrall to the so called “magic mineral” with its myriad industrial and domestic uses. (By way of example the famous poppy scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy falls asleep in the meadow was filmed in the 1940’s using asbestos flakes.) But by this time in Germany scientists had already made the link between asbestos and cancers. Hitler restricted its use in shipyards during re-armament. Asbestos related disease was made an occupational illness for which compensation was payable in Germany from 1943.
All of this was swept away after Hitler was defeated. Germany joined the rest of the world in promoting the magic mineral and an epidemic of asbestos related disease with catastrophic consequences for worker health. If you want to learn more read “The Nazi War on Cancer” by Robert Proctor.
It is estimated that throughout the world one person dies of an asbestos related disease every five minutes.
In the western hemisphere things began to change in the 1960s. US litigation against asbestos producers began to be successful. In the famous Manville Williams trial , (the first victory for asbestos victims) , the plaintiff lawyers used the Nazi research to prove the connection between asbestos and cancer.
In Britain workers in the Turner & Newall asbestos making factory stormed the admin offices and showered the company directors with artificial asbestos flakes. Health and safety regulations were put in place and there was finally a will to enforce them in the late 1970s. Tragically all of this was far too late for a generation.
Scotland, with its history of shipbuilding and heavy industry, has now the unfortunate distinction of being one of the asbestos disease capitals of the word.
Asbestos fibres themselves are harmless until broken up and inhaled. Thereafter, in a process not fully understood, they remain in the lungs and eventually cause disease some 30 or even 50 years later. The range of illnesses include mesothelioma (invariably fatal), asbestosis, lung cancer, pleural thickening and pleural plaques. Pleural plaques are symptomless, but their presence is an undeniable marker of repeated asbestos exposure, and when there is a diagnosis the patient lives the rest of their lives under a shadow of fear that they will develop something very much worse.
What kinds of occupations were at risk? Anyone involved in asbestos insulation work such as laggers, construction workers, painters and decorators, or garage workers fixing asbestos lined brake pads. But no-one can be completely immune. Two recent high profile cases involved doctors who died after exposure whilst working in our dingy old Victorian hospitals. Many women who washed their husband’s asbestos stained overalls, would many years later suffer the same grim fate as their menfolk.
All of these conditions, including pleural plaques, attract legal compensation and damages. All of these conditions except pleural plaques are eligible for modest state compensation in terms of the Industrial Injuries Benefits Scheme.
So would workers in Scotland and the rest of Britain have escaped asbestos illness if the Nazis had won?
Hitler’s great concern was the health and racial purity of the Germanic tribe and no-one else. During the Second World War virtually all of occupied Europe was used as a slave labour pool for the Third Reich. Men and women were subjected to appalling conditions and worked to death. It was notorious that Hitler had a lifelong admiration for the British on the grounds that 30,000 British civil servants could successfully rule and dominate the whole Indian subcontinent . But you would have to be well to the right of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen to think it would have been any different here from the rest of Europe..