Aylsham nurse’s cancer caused by weekly laundry

A weekly wash of her boilerman husband's work clothes sparked an asbestos-linked cancer which killed a Norfolk nurse 40 years later.

Now health chiefs have admitted the link and made a compensation settlement to the family of 79-year-old Betty Farrow.

She was an auxiliary nurse at St Michael's Hospital in Aylsham from 1967-70, where her husband worked in the boiler house.

Mrs Farrow led a fit and active life, later running pubs and bringing up a family, but was taken ill in December 2007, diagnosed with terminal cancer, and given just three to six months to live.

She died in June 2008 with an inquest showing the cause of death was mesothelioma, and revealing scarring of the lung lining which only develops as a result of exposure to asbestos.


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Her family sought compensation and last year combined with specialist lawyers to put out a plea for other people who worked at the hospital in the 1960s to come forward with evidence of asbestos at the site to help their case.

David Cass from law firm Irwin Mitchell said the successful settlement, for an undisclosed but 'significant' sum, was pleasing as such cases were hard-fought - and had been helped by witnesses who came forward after the previous publicity.

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Asbestos cases were getting harder to fight with the trend moving away clients who were people working all their lives in industry where they were exposed to asbestos routinely each day.

'Now it is more diverse - including tradesmen, such as electricians and carpenters working in buildings with asbestos such as hospitals, schools, factories and oil platforms and also exposing it to their wives and children at home.

His youngest case - not from Norfolk - was a 38-year-old man who worked in management, but was exposed to the clothes of his father who worked for a local authority.

Asbestos was an 'inexpensive wonder material' in its time, but 'also terminally dangerous because it sticks around in the body as well as the environment for a long time.'

Last year he had 30 cases from Norfolk and Suffolk, with many dating back to the 1960s and 1970s.

There had been earlier successful claims such as former nurses Diane Coote from Lakenham and Mary Artherton from Poringland who contracted the cancer at Norwich Hospitals, where they were exposed to asbestos when passing lagged pipes in the hospital basement on the way to the canteen, and from sweeping the wards.

Health officials confirmed however that Mrs Farrow's case at Aylsham related to her washing her husband's clothes rather than her being exposed during her nursing work.

An NHS East of England spokesman said Mrs Farrow's case was a rare one, and the older part of St Michael's Hospital, which was built in the 1840's and which started life as a workhouse, closed in 2005.

He added: 'Although Mrs Farrow worked at St Michael's Hospital, Aylsham as an auxiliary nurse during the late 1960's, no evidence was adduced suggesting that she herself had been occupationally exposed to asbestos during the course of her employment.

'There was, however, evidence which established that during the late 1960's/early 1970's her first husband had worked in the boilerhouse at St Michael's Hospital where there was asbestos lagging and that he took home asbestos dust and fibres on his work clothes which Mrs Farrow laundered.

'It was this exposure to asbestos dust and fibres on her first husband's work clothes which was considered to have been the cause of Mrs Farrow's fatal illness.'

Betty's surname was Ferguson when she worked at Aylsham. She and her late husband Joe ran pubs – the Maid's Head at Hindolveston and the Hevingham Fox – and brought up their four children at Felmingham.

Daughter Sue Empson who still lives there, and remembers the weekly washing of her father's dusty work clothes, said they were glad the case was over after a 'long haul', adding: 'It is nothing to do with money but what is right.'

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