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- Clark, Nancy
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In 1968 Nancy Tait lost her husband, William Ashton Tait, to mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos exposure. Available information, at the time, on the disease and on how it was contracted did not convince her. She embarked on an extended fact-finding mission that grew into a research and advocacy agenda which would occupy her for four decades.
Nancy Tait was born Nancy Clark on 12 February 1920 in Enfield, north London, the daughter of William and Annie Clark. Her father was a compositor. On completing her secondary education at Enfield County School for Girls, she joined the civil service but had her career interrupted by the advent of World War 2. Assigned to the Post Office, she worked alongside her future husband, telecommunication engineer William Ashton Tait. They married in 1943 and had a son, John, by the end of the war. After the war Tait retrained as a teacher but soon returned to administrative work, arranging insurance with Lloyds, organising extra-mural exams at London University, then apprenticeships at the Master Printers Association. By the mid-1970s she worked as an executive officer on the Royal Commission on Income and Wealth.
In 1968 Nancy Tait became an asbestos widow. Her husband Bill had not worked in the asbestos industry, and it was unlikely that he had become exposed to asbestos types then known to be dangerous. Nancy Tait embarked on an extended fact-finding mission that grew into a research and advocacy agenda which occupied her for four decades, eventually encompassing virtually every facet of occupational and environmental health.
Her initial quest focused exclusively on asbestos. The award of a fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust in 1976 allowed her to explore questions of asbestos safety with experts at the cancer centre in Lyon, the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation in Geneva, and the European Economic Community social health centre in Luxembourg, and to visit the United States and Canada in July 1977. By then her booklet ‘Asbestos kills’ had come out, which stressed the dangers of all types of asbestos including the hazards of environmental exposure, and she had appeared as an expert witness before the Health & Safety Commission’s Advisory Committee on Asbestos. She also served as an expert for the environment with the EEC Economic and Social Committee Study Group on Asbestos in 1977 and 1978, and became one of the named directors of the Glasgow-based Cancer Prevention Society, a cancer pressure group set up with the backing of the Scottish TUC. The Royal Commission on Income and Wealth gave her clerical support and 3 months paid leave.
The response of the asbestos industry to the rising scrutiny of the magic mineral’s safety record included an intense advertising campaign in the summer of 1976, culminating, for Nancy Tait, in a Turner & Newall advertisement in 1977 that proclaimed: ‘You know asbestos protects—Why not say so!’. Reportedly it outraged her into founding, with the help of influential friends (among them Lord Plant of Benenden and Lord Avebury) the charity Asbestos Induced Diseases Society (AIDS), launched under the name SPAID – Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases – in the autumn of 1978. This was the first and the forerunner of a string of asbestos action groups worldwide and from 1988 ran its own electron microscope laboratory, with whose aid Tait advised special medical boards on respiratory diseases and coroners on the assessment of the presence of asbestos fibres in lung tissue. The instrument was, she stated in 1999, the only bulwark against [certain medical experts’] efforts to secure verdicts of natural causes or open verdicts’. From 1996 SPAID operated under the name Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association (OEDA).
Tait taught herself about asbestos DRAFT / COMPLETE ME tirelessly canvassed medical opinion, and lobbied MPs, union leaders and civil servants. She never gave up, thus making a thorough nuisance of herself to the asbestos industry and government.
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- obituary, \Guardian\ (Nick Wikely), 23 February 2009
- obituary, \Independent\ (Geoffrey Tweedale), 22 October 2011
- 'Unstinting campaigner for workers' rights - Nancy Tait, MBE', ‘ACADemy: the journal of ACAD – TICA Asbestos Control and Abatement Division’, issue 10 (winter 1996-1997), 10-11
- 'Dust up', \Weekly Herald\ (Peter Gruner), 7 May 1976