Global Asbestos Congress 2000


Mavis Robinson
Asbestos Nursing Specialist, UK

(Ed. Henri Pezerat's response speech (Portuguese) follows the account of the Paris presentation.)

This is a picture of June Hancock. A lady of great strength and determination.

June Hancock

This award in her name has been made to Henri Pezerat (see Paris Presentation), a renowned French toxicologist.

Henri Pezerat

For over 25 years Henri has sought to make the French government, unions and public aware of the horrific legacy asbestos has left in his country. I have never met Henri but from all I have heard about him and what he has achieved, his determination is similar to that shown by June Hancock.

I did know June, which is why I have been asked to tell you a little about her and why this award bears her name.

In early 1994 I was the specialist lung cancer nurse at Killingbeck Chest Hospital in Leeds, Yorkshire. Part of my work involved talking to people after they had been given the devastating news that they have a cancer diagnosis.

June was in this position; she had just been told that she had malignant mesothelioma. I can remember very clearly this small fair-haired lady, she was pale and drawn, obviously shocked. She said that there was little I could tell her about the disease because her mother had died from it twelve years previously.

She knew precisely what lay ahead for her. She did not cry, but she was very angry and determined to try and do something about what had happened firstly to her mother and now to herself.

Two in one family, she said, was two too many. Fired by her keen sense of right and wrong she decided to take action against the firm involved.

Her environmental asbestos exposure was caused by living next to Roberts's asbestos textile factory in a village called Armley on the outskirts of Leeds. What happened to the people around this asbestos works and also to the people who worked there became known locally as 'The Armley Tragedy'

The parent company of this small works was Turner & Newall Ltd., a huge company with over 40,000 employees in 24 countries generating a £2 billion turnover in 1995. No one had ever taken a UK asbestos company to court for environmental exposure before. But this is what this very ordinary working woman did. And she won.

Her victory established a legal precedent that made it easier for other UK asbestos victims to obtain compensation for environmental exposure to asbestos. Many patients I have nursed since with mesothelioma have benefited from the action which she took, and have received compensation for their disease.

June is remembered particularly for her comments after winning the case against Turner & Newall when she said 'no matter how small you are, you can fight and no matter how big you are you can lose.'

June survived with mesothelioma for three and a half years. This was longer than the doctors had thought possible. During this time I met her frequently; she had many hospital admissions to try and ease her pain and suffering.

She showed her fighting spirit even when her pain was bad. A few doctors and nurses found her challenging when they didn't meet up to her expectations.

The fight for justice sustained her 'It extended my life' she said but eventually the disease won and she died in July 1997.

She fought to the very last and her family is delighted and proud for this award to be made in her name.

Paris Presentation
International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS)

We are here today to honour two people: June Hancock, an unassuming Englishwoman from a small industrial town, and Henri Pezerat, a renowned French toxicologist who is with us here today. Having known both of them, it is my very great pleasure to tell you about these two remarkable people. June Hancock was a lady from Yorkshire in the north of England. An ordinary person, so she said, who loved her family, her dogs and Leeds United Football Club. But I have to tell you - June was not, in any sense of the word, ordinary. Everyone who met her, including the High Court Judge who presided over her case, was impressed by her sincerity, dignity and courage.

In 1982 June's Mother died twelve long months after she had been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Mesothelioma killed her. At that time, a doctor said that the disease had probably been caused by living near an asbestos textile factory in the town of Armley. Later June said: "I wish we'd done something at the time about Mum but what do you do when you are totally bereft and grief-stricken."

In 1994, lightening hit the same family again when June was diagnosed with this terrible disease. June knew only too well what the future held in store; she had seen her Mother's suffering and knew that everyday tasks would become increasingly difficult. Nobody made Yorkshire puddings like June. Every Sunday, daughter Kimberley and sons Russell and Gareth brought their families to June's house for a traditional Sunday lunch. Lack of breath would put an end to this happy occasion. Taking her beloved dogs for walks and going to watch Leeds United play football would also end. June knew that her time was limited. Nevertheless she was determined to seek justice for her Mother, her own family and for other asbestos victims. The company which had caused so much hardship and unhappiness must answer for what they had done.

The culprit was Turner & Newall Limited, the parent company which had exerted ultimate control at the Armley factory. T&N's 40,000 employees in 24 countries generated a £2 billion turnover in 1995. No one had ever taken a UK asbestos company to court for environmental asbestos exposure before. June did. On October 27, 1995 the Court ruled in her favour. The company appealed. On April 2, 1996 the Court of Appeal dismissed their appeal. June had won. That victory established a legal precedent which has made it easier for other UK asbestos victims to obtain compensation.

When she won, June said the ruling proved that: "No matter how small you are, you can fight and no matter how big you are, you can lose." June defied her doctors. In June, 1994 she had been given two years to live. She survived for 3.5 years. Her memory lives on not only in UK case law but as an inspiration to all those, solicitors, barristers, medical researchers, doctors, nurses, television and newspaper journalists, health and safety activists, who knew and respected the quiet but determined nature with which she fought against her illness and the corporation which had caused it

When I told Kimberley, June's daughter, about this award she wrote to me: "We are absolutely delighted and so proud too about the award being made in Mum's name. What Mum achieved was incredible, and we know that if she were here today, she would be continuing the battle against this evil asbestos legacy. We must continue to raise awareness locally, nationally and internationally and these awards certainly do that. It is so very fortunate that there are organisations and people, like Mum, who are prepared to dedicate so much time and effort to this vital cause, and often against the odds."

June's family was delighted to learn that Henri Pezerat was to receive The June Hancock Award. For over twenty-five years Henri Pezerat has sought to make the French government, unions and public aware of the horrific legacy asbestos has left in his country. For many years, he was ignored; sometimes ridiculed and often dismissed as a leftist troublemaker. Is he a troublemaker? Let's find out.

In 1975, Henri coordinated the first asbestos actions at Jussieu. These included strikes, assemblies and negotiations. He was the first one to realise the scale of the problem at the University of Jussieu. He also foresaw, long before the rest of us, the huge price that French asbestos and other workers would pay for the privilege of earning a living. Building alliances with the unions was crucial to the struggle at Jussieu. Henri contacted the asbestos workers at Ferodo and Amisol and together they protested the status quo. The result of this collaboration was the first legislation against asbestos in France.

Henri realised that as a scientist he had to respond to social needs and issues of public health. Henri changed the emphasis of his work and he started to research the toxicity of asbestos and other fibres. This new direction went against the scientific climate of the time. French scientists were encouraged to favour the asbestos industry position by the infamous CPA. The CPA was an effective and successful industry tool but in the end, Henri's high reputation and his solid scientific arguments obliged others to enter and not ignore the debate.

Henri's involvement was pivotal in the efforts to build the international Ban Asbestos Movement. The conferences in Milan and Sao Paulo were the acorns from which the now huge international movement has grown. His scientific experience and abilities were crucial in securing the foundation of this movement. His ability and willingness to review supposedly independent academic papers written under the influence of the industry were incomparable. The generosity of his time and considerable mental abilities were pivotal over and over again. He made a friend out of the media and through his efforts, asbestos issues found a place in the pages of Le Monde.

All the while Henri remained concerned about the situation in France; studying the mortality rates for mesothelioma, worrying about the lack of compensation for the victims. He continuously criticised the fallacy of controlled use which (Bignon, Brouchard and a lot of other scientists) hide behind. He drew attention over and over again to the government's selective blindness when it came to asbestos issues. Frequent contact with the ex-Amisol and other workers produced the idea of a local Association against asbestos. This was to eventually grow into ANDEVA, the social movement in France, which has been responsible for making the government aware of its responsibilities, putting an end to the CPA and securing a unilateral ban on asbestos in France. The French ban was pivotal; after France banned asbestos, the UK followed as did the European Union.

And even now Henri continues his involvement with asbestos issues in France and abroad. His work over many years helped pave the way for the creation of an international solidarity network which is a new force in the face of increasing globalisation. This new concept of public health and social activism owes much to Henri's efforts and vision. I know that June would have been proud for this award to be presented to Henri Pezerat: dedicated scientist and campaigner who identified a problem and persisted in his efforts to achieve compensation for asbestos victims and protection foe the rest of us from this deadly fibre. It is with great pleasure that I present the June Hancock Award to Henri Pezerat.