The BBC has paid £1.64m in damages over the deaths of 11 former staff who died from cancer after working in corporation buildings riddled with asbestos, the Observer can reveal.
It has made the payouts to families of make-up artists, engineers, riggers, set builders, studio managers and television producers. All 11 died of mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos.
They worked at no fewer than 18 BBC locations, including Broadcasting House in central London, Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham and Television Center in White City, west London, its headquarters for decades until 2013.
The list also includes Bush House, the former base of BBC World Service radio, and Alexandra Palace, both in the capital. Known as “the birthplace of television”), the latter is a key part of BBC history because the corporation made its first TV broadcast from there in 1936.
The BBC made the admissions in response to a freedom of information request by the Observer. We sought details of settled cases after revealing last year that it was facing potential damages claims from relatives of ex-members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBCSO) and other former personnel who worked in premises containing asbestos.
The broadcaster said it had paid £1,637,501 in compensation over the last to settle claims involving the nine men and two women, who worked for it between 1959 and 1998. It did not name them.
“The payouts over these deaths show that asbestos remains a major menace,” said Liz Darlison, the chief executive of Mesothelioma UK, who is also a part-time NHS nurse in the NHS. “Many people don’t realise that 95% of our hospitals and 85% of our schools still contain some asbestos and that asbestos is a carcinogenic substance that causes mesothelioma.
“It’s a dreadful disease.” Over half of people die within a year of being diagnosed – an appalling statistic,” Darlison added. About 2,700 people a year in the UK are diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Some of the 11 also worked at Dickenson Road Studios in Manchester and BBC Scotland’s former headquarters at Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow’s West End as well as on Bressay, in the Shetland Islands, and on Ascension Island, at the World Service’s Atlantic Relay Station.
The BBC said: “It is not possible to confirm whether the individuals were exposed to asbestos while working at BBC locations and, if so, over what period that exposure may have occurred.”
In 2006 the BBC warned current and former employees and freelancers that they had been exposed to asbestos in studios TC2, TC3 and TC5 at the now-defunct Television Center between 1990 and 2005. It was possible asbestos fibers had fallen from cable ducts on to floors , potentially giving rise to human exposure.
The Observer reported last year how the family of Christopher Larkin, a horn player with the BBCSO who died of mesothelioma, were suing the BBC. The BBC admitted liability for the musician’s death and an inquest found he “died from the consequences of exposure to asbestos”. He rehearsed for 36 years at the BBC’s Maida Vale studios in London, which were later found to contain asbestos, some of it broken and exposed. The building is due to close and replacement studios are being built at the Olympic Park in east London.
We also disclosed how the BBC had admitted exposing Richard Evans, a set builder on shows including Doctor Who who died of mesothelioma, to asbestos during his 23 years at the corporation making and painting sets. He worked mainly at Television Center but also other locations around the UK and routinely used Artex, a textured coating that until the mid-1980s was made with white asbestos. His widow Valerie has also launched legal action.
Harminder Bains, the lawyer for the families of Larkin, Evans and other former BBC staff who died of mesothelioma, said she suspected far more corporation personnel had been exposed to asbestos than those in the 11 lawsuits settled.
“While the BBC may only have settled 11 cases, I don’t believe that they have only exposed 11 people to asbestos.
“There must be hundreds if not a few thousand people [who were] exposed to asbestos by the BBC, given the number of locations but also the long number of years asbestos was present in BBC locations,” said Bains, a partner at Leigh Day Solicitors.
The Commons work and pensions select committee is undertaking an inquiry into asbestos, chaired by the former Labor cabinet minister Stephen Timms. Its final evidence session this Wednesday will see MPs quiz bosses of the Health and Safety Executive as well as Chloe Smith, minister of state at the Department for Work and Pensions.
Charles Pickles, an asbestos consultant turned campaigner, warned that many schools still contain amosite, also known as brown asbestos, and pose a danger to staff and pupils because it is the form of asbestos found in the lungs of 98% of people who develop mesothelioma . “Amosite is clearly lethal, yet remains built into our public buildings.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “We would like to extend our continued sympathies to the families of all those affected.
“The health and safety of BBC staff and all that use BBC buildings is a primary concern. The BBC manages asbestos in accordance with applicable regulations and statutory requirements.”