Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer without a cure. It can caused by low levels of asbestos exposure and develops in the lining of the lungs and (less commonly) in the abdomen.
It was recently reported that Colin Harper, former Ipswich Town footballer, passed away from mesothelioma likely associated with cutting asbestos as an apprentice carpenter. Though it is perhaps more commonly associated with industrial workers, who applied or removed asbestos insulation, or dockyard workers, who imported asbestos, mesothelioma can affect people from all walks of life.
Here are a five famous faces from the world of music and movies, who were struck down by this dreadful condition. Hopefully these examples serve as cautionary tales for the future.
The American acting icon died at the age of 50 from pleural mesothelioma, which could have come from his time as a U.S. Marine where he stripped asbestos from pipes in ship engine rooms. However, Hollywood likely exposed McQueen further. Asbestos was used as ‘movie snow’, most famously in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Holiday Inn’, which featured the Christmas classic ‘White Christmas’. It is also possible that he worked around sound stage insulation and for the racing documentary ‘Le Mans’ (1971), he is said to have worn a flame-retardant asbestos suit. In his spare time, McQueen loved racing and fixing up cars and motorcycles, which at the time, had parts containing asbestos. Although a low level of exposure can cause mesothelioma, it looks as though McQueen was surrounded by the deadly material in both his professional and personal life.
The manager of mythical punk bands Sex Pistols and New York Dolls died at the age of 64 from peritoneal mesothelioma. He is thought to have come into contact with asbestos while ripping down the ceiling of ‘Sex’, the controversial clothes boutique he ran with Dame Vivienne Westwood on the King’s Road in London. He is reported to have wanted the shop to look “like a bomb had hit it” but in doing so, he probably disturbed some asbestos board and liberated dangerous fibres into his breathing zone. Asbestos is thought to be in millions of constructions in the UK because of how widely it was used as a building material, but it is safe so long as it is not disturbed. This seems to be what went wrong in McLaren’s case.
American rock and roller Warren Zevon, purveyor of the smash hit ‘Werewolves of London’ which was later sampled by Kid Rock in ‘All Summer Long’, died aged 56 from pleural mesothelioma. Zevon’s son Jordan, who is a spokesman for Asbestos Disease Awareness Organisation (ADAO) in the US, suggested that his father might have been exposed from his younger years playing in his grandfather’s carpet store or from some “creepy pink insulation” in his grandfather’s attic. Zevon told his long-time friend, chat show king David Letterman, on his late night show that “I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years” but the stark reality is that this would not have cured him, though earlier detection could have improved the length of his survival.
Pop music producer Mickie Most, the producer of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ by The Animals and star of ‘New Faces’, died age 64 of peritoneal mesothelioma but the source of his exposure has never been fully realised. The story circulated that he was exposed because asbestos was used in soundproofing tiles in recording studios but the BBC reported that recording studio experts thought asbestos was not efficient for this purpose and was unlikely to have been used. However, it was conceded that it might have been used for sound deadening to absorb noise in the 1950s and 1960s. Most’s case is unfortunately like many – finding the probable sources of the deadly fibre going back decades is what can make this area of law particularly challenging.
Back in 2007, Hannah Montana star and singing sensation Miley Cyrus released a single called ‘Miss You’ as a tribute to her grandfather, Ron Cyrus, who died from mesothelioma aged 70. Unlike Miley and her country singer father, Billy Ray, Ron was not a famous musician but was well-known for his service in the Kentucky House of Representatives for 21 years. Ron was said to have been a steel worker in his youth. An Act known as ‘The Ron Cyrus and Todd Hall Mesothelioma Awareness Act of 2009’ was introduced in order to ensure that Mesothelioma Awareness Day (26 September) was recognised in Kentucky. Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the USA has no general ban on the use of asbestos, which continues to be a political bone of contention.
In more recent news, the actor Andrew Hall recently lost his life to mesothelioma at the age of 65. He died on 20 May 2019. Although involved in many well-known TV shows such as Coronation Street and Casualty, he will be remembered by most as Russell in the BBC sitcom Butterflies in which he starred alongside Wendy Craig and his on-screen brother, Nicholas Lyndhurst. The series, which was hugely popular for many years, ran from 1978 -1983.
His obituary in The Times reported that he had worked in theatre and television for almost all of his life both as an actor, but also as an assistant stage manager and as a stage manager in the earlier part of his life. One can only speculate as to how he may have encountered asbestos, but the pattern of possible exposure within the entertainment industry would appear to fit the pattern of unexplained deaths within the entertainment industry.
Each of these cases in turn highlights the complexity of investigating the likely source of asbestos exposure. Each also shows the need for more understanding of where asbestos is located even now in our schools, hospitals and town halls. A properly funded national database would almost certainly help.
For now, we are left with inadequate advice on the HSE website for tradespeople about the possible danger of unknowing asbestos exposure when undertaking everyday tasks as part of their role. The HSE go on to add that “asbestos remains in millions of homes, business premises and public buildings today.” Clearly, the difficulties of precisely identifying the source of asbestos exposure, in the light of the lack of full information, are likely to continue for as long as the risk of asbestos exposure remains.
Knowledge is the only power we have to save more lives in the future.
This post was written by Ian Bailey and Alexia Kapranos.