ACK, a former Clydeside shipyard worker, suffers from asbestosis, a debilitating lung condition that he contracted while working. His wife, Beanie, is nursing him through his illness, only to find that she, too, has an asbestos-related disease. It is assumed that Beanie contracted the condition through secondary inhalation of asbestos fibres when she was cleaning Jack’s work overalls.

This is the premise of Fibres, the latest play by Glasgow-based dramatist Frances Poet (below). Staged by Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre and Scotland’s women’s theatre company Stellar Quines, its cast includes Jonathan Watson (of Only an Excuse and Two Doors Down fame) as Jack and Maureen Carr (Still Game and River City) as Beanie.

As a family drama, the piece may seem comparatively small, but it takes us to the heart of a massive issue. Contrary to much received wisdom, asbestos-related disease is not a thing of the past, nor is it in decline.

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In Scotland we may have stopped putting asbestos (an effective fire retardant, the fibres of which cause a number of health conditions, including cancers) into buildings, but we are far from in the clear where asbestos-related illness is concerned.

Partly, this is because, as Phyllis Craig, manager and senior welfare rights officer of the campaigning charity Action on Asbestos (still widely known by its former name Clydeside Action on Asbestos/CAA) explains, “there’s a latency period of between 20 and 50 years from when you were exposed to asbestos and when you show symptoms of illness”.

In terms of shipyard workers, who have been particularly badly hit by asbestos conditions, that means that someone who was exposed to asbestos in the 1970s or 80s might only be reporting with symptoms now.

However, there are other reasons why instances of asbestos-related illness are on the increase in Scotland (there were 800 new cases last year, and already Scotland has 150 more cases this year than in October 2018). As Craig explains, as a cheap, fire-resistant material, asbestos was used in the construction of many, if not most, public buildings, including schools and hospitals, in the decades after the Second World War.

Some 75% of schools built in Scotland since 1945 contain asbestos. CAA is campaigning alongside the trade unions for the safe removal of the substance from all public buildings.

The need for such a campaign was underlined in August of this year when construction workers engaged in the demolition of the Kincorth Academy school building in Aberdeen were exposed to asbestos. This despite an outcry when, in July of last year, it took Aberdeen City Council five days to finally impose emergency measures after asbestos was disturbed at the Bridge of Don Academy building. In the 2018 case, teachers, janitors, cleaners and other workers were potentially exposed to the carcinogen.

When I meet Jemima Levick, artistic director of Stellar Quines, who is directing Fibres, during rehearsals in the Gorbals on the southside of Glasgow, she is very much aware of the scale of the asbestos problem in Scotland. “There was never a doubt in my mind that this was a story that had to be told," she says of Poet’s play.

The National: Jonathan Watson and Suzanne Magowan rehearsing. Photograph: Alex BradyJonathan Watson and Suzanne Magowan rehearsing. Photograph: Alex Brady

The initial idea for the drama, the director explains, came from a conversation Poet had with a woman at her daughter’s music class. It transpired that the woman had lost both of her parents to asbestos-related illness within a period of six months.

This led to Poet researching and writing a play that considers the huge implications of asbestos for public health, society and politics through the prism of one family’s crisis. “When I first read this play, as I find with many of Frances’s plays, I was reminded that she writes really brilliant characters that are born of the heart," says Levick.

“Then you get into the stuff about asbestos poisoning people and the west of Scotland being particularly badly affected by that. Then it starts to balloon outwards.”

AS a theatre maker, Levick is very much aware that plays driven by social concerns can end up putting their important message ahead of questions of artistic style. “We had quite a hilarious conversation, in the first week of rehearsals," the director remembers, “when Frances confessed that this is her ‘health and safety play’. I was like, ‘please, God, don’t call it that, to anyone, ever!’

“Of course, it is a play about asbestos, that is the driver of the piece. However, actually, it’s a play in which people talk about their hopes and dreams, the people they love, and what it means to lose somebody you really love.

“It’s about what it means to be in a relationship, what it means to sustain that relationship, what happens when the other person goes, and what happens when new relationships are being formed.

“It’s a really beautiful play, actually, about the way people feel. Sitting underneath that is the context of a city that has been poisoned, basically, and continues to be so.”

READ MORE: Fibres' sense of humor shines through in shipyard exploration

For their part, CAA are hugely supportive of the play. “They’re fabulous for taking up this particular subject," says Craig of the Fibres team.

“It can be a bit frightening for people, because quite a number of families are affected. It’s fabulous that the play is showing that it is a continuing problem.

“This is what we need. We need people to say, ‘listen, this is not a thing of the past, it’s not dying out, and it’s not in decline. It’s actually on the increase.’”

However, whilst CAA welcomes Poet’s drama enthusiastically, Craig is at pains to point out that people should not generalise from the case of Beanie in the play. It is a widely-held myth, she says, that women only contracted asbestos conditions through secondary inhalation, particularly through washing the overalls of their husband or other male loved ones.

Indeed, such a perception has been used to the benefit of employers seeking to avoid paying compensation to women suffering from asbestos-related illnesses. “We are always trying to let people know that it is detrimental in the pursuit of civil damages if it’s recorded that the person has this condition by washing overalls, when, indeed, they actually worked themselves," Craig comments.

Often, she continues, women described as suffering from secondary asbestos conditions may well have contracted their illness, not in the home from men’s overalls, but in their own place of work.

Craig gives the example of a 52-year-old woman who came to CAA having been diagnosed with mesothelioma (a form of lung cancer which is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos). “Her husband worked in the shipyards, and he had pleural plaques. It was recorded that it was because of her husband’s overalls that she contracted mesothelioma. I asked her where she had worked, and she said ‘Cape Asbestos factory’.”

Such cases underline the importance, where women have been diagnosed with asbestos conditions, of asking, first-and-foremost, where these women worked. Although some women, like the character of Beanie in the play, did contract asbestos diseases through exposure to the overalls of male loved ones, many others are likely to have suffered primary exposure in the workplace.

As part of their preparation for staging the play, Levick and the Fibres team met with Phyllis Craig. They outlined the story to her, complete with Beanie having contracted an asbestos condition through secondary inhalation.

“She asked where the character of Beanie had worked," Levick remembers. “We said ‘in a laundrette’, and Phyllis said, ‘well, there you go! Laundrettes were covered in the stuff.”

“We were like, ‘shit, maybe it wasn’t secondhand inhalation! For the purposes of the story it remains the case that Beanie contracted an asbestos condition through secondary inhalation.

“However, she could have very feasibly contracted it at her place of work, because big industrial laundrettes, in particular, were absolutely covered in the stuff, because of the heat and the risk of fire.”

The underlying politics of the asbestos issue are of immense and continuing significance. In the United States, for example, Donald Trump (a longtime advocate for asbestos, which has been used in many of his buildings) has used his presidential powers to loosen regulations on the use of the substance.

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Consequently, and incredibly, the door may be opened to asbestos being employed once again in the American construction industry. Meanwhile in Russia (which is seeking to capture much of the global asbestos market following the prohibition of asbestos mining in Brazil), packs of asbestos are being stamped with Trump’s image alongside the legend, “Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States” (above).

Craig, who received an MBE from the Queen in 2012, “for services to sufferers of asbestos related diseases”, is driven by the need for justice for people who are ill due to the negligence of employers. “All they did was go to work and they were exposed negligently," she says.

“There have been so many injustices and so many obstacles put in the way of people with an asbestos condition, that we have to bring it to Parliament so that legislation can be changed and people can receive the recompense that they deserve.”

CAA’s campaigning in the Scottish Parliament has paid dividends. Craig gives the example of people suffering with pleural plaques (a disease that affects the pleura, which is the thin membrane that surrounds the lungs and envelops the inside of the chest).

After what CAA’s manager says was a “long, drawn-out process” (thanks to the legal obstacles put forward by companies facing compensation claims), the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of people with pleural plaques having the right to pursue compensation. There is no such right in England.

In addition to such campaign work, CAA offers an array of services throughout Scotland, including: funding dedicated medical posts within the NHS; advice on legal matters, such as people’s right to pursue civil action with respect to their case; and a comprehensive welfare rights service, providing both emotional support and advice on benefits and compensation to which people are entitled.

The welfare rights service is crucial. As Craig points out, “you’ve got to remember, a lot of people [with asbestos-related diseases] can no longer work. [Many of them] have never claimed benefits or anything like that.

“We are specialists in social security law," she continues. “We try to make sure that people get their basic legal entitlement.”

Craig hopes that the tour of Fibres will help raise awareness of asbestos-related illness. She also urges anyone affected by the kind of conditions depicted in the play to contact CAA for help and support.

Fibres is on tour from October 17 to November 2. For tour details, visit:

For further information on Action on Asbestos visit the website:, or call the freephone help line: 0800 089 1717