Asbestosis, a severe and life threatening disease, is directly linked to the inhalation of asbestos fibers. In asbestosis, these fibers make their way to one’s lungs and become embedded in the inner tissue. The tissue then scars causing “fibrosis.” Once the tissue begins to scar, it then starts to harden which stops the flow of oxygen; making it hard for the patient to breathe. It can take between 10 and 40 years to develop asbestosis. We know so much about asbestosis now – the symptoms, the treatment, and the cause, but back in the early 20th century it took the death of a young factory woman to make pulmonary asbestosis part of medical literature.
Nellie Kershaw was an English textile worker who suffered from asbestosis in the 1920s. A formal inquest into her unnatural death led to an investigation that determined once and for all the dangers of asbestos.
At the age of 12 years old Nellie Kershaw began working at an asbestos mill where she was employed for approximately 14 years. In 1917 at age 26, she then began employment at Turner Brother Asbestos Fibers where she spun raw asbestos fibers into yarn. Three years later, at the age of 29, she began to experience symptoms of asbestosis and eventually was deemed unfit to work .When she consulted a doctor, the doctor recorded her as having “asbestos poisoning,” and she was urged to file a Workman’s Compensation claim with her employer Turner Brothers Asbestos Fibers.
As one might guess, her claim was denied. Asbestos related illnesses and diseases were not yet recognized, because asbestos was not labeled as an occupational hazard. Many employers believed at the time that there was no evidence that workers who were suffering from breathing problems were suffering because of their asbestos exposure. Despite Nellie Kershaw’s best efforts in trying to receive some type of compensation, she was repeatedly ignored until her death at age 33.
As was law at the time, death by unnatural causes must be investigated. Nellie Kershaw’s original cause of death was said to be a combination of pulmonary tuberculosis and heart failure, but an autopsy revealed scarring and particles in the lungs that were consistent with that of the asbestos fibers found in the factory where Nellie Kershaw had worked. In 1927, Nellie Kershaw’s case was published in the British Medical Journal where it was given the name “pulmonary asbestosis.”
Today, asbestos is recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and workers are protected and assured that they are working in a safe and healthy environment. As an employee, know that you have rights under OSHA. If you think your workplace is hazardous, you have the right to contact OSHA and ask them to inspect your environment.
Laurie Kazan-Allen, “The Female Face of Britian’s Asbestos Catastrophe,” International Ban Asbestos Secretariat. [Link]
W.E. Cooke, M.D., “Fibrosis of the Lungs Due to the Inhalation of Asbestos Dust,” NCBI (July 24, 1924). [Link]
Mesothelioma Guide, “Mesothelioma v. Asbestosis,” [Link]
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