Was this NHS heroine killed by asbestos from a north London hospital?

Former North London nurse Mabel Scanlon

Mabel Scanlon worked as a nurse at the Whittington, Barnet General and Coppetts Wood Hospital - but was she killed by asbestos she was exposed to at one of them? - Credit: The Scanlon Family

The family of a former nurse killed by asbestos wants to find her old north London NHS colleagues.

Mabel Scanlon, 84, from North Finchley, died in 2019 from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos.

But by the time she was diagnosed she was too unwell to disclose where she might have been exposed.

Her family believe she inhaled it at work but need the help of her past colleagues to prove it. 

Their lawyer, Joanne Candlish, said: “It only takes one person to come forward to turn this from potentially a hopeless case to a runner.”

Mabel’s Story

Mabel worked at the Whittington Hospital from 1952-55, Barnet General from 1955-56, and Coppetts Wood Hospital in Muswell Hill from 1958-72.

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“She was hugely caring and practical – a fantastic nurse,” said her daughter Clare.

“She had a deep faith and in other areas of her life she did things for the vulnerable. She worked with groups who had physical and learning difficulties.

“Her and my dad used some of their holiday time to take teenagers with disabilities and shorter life expectancies on holidays. She was always mucking in wherever she could.”

In early 2019, Mabel began suffering pain in her chest, back and sides. 

She had recently had two back surgeries but her family realised this was something else.

“She was a no-nonsense, strong nurse all her life,” said Clare. “A brave, uncomplaining nursing sister. This wasn’t her. Something was going on.”

In February 2019, after weeks of pain, Clare called an ambulance. Tests found Mabel had cancer.

She was admitted to hospital, then to the North London Hospice.

By the time doctors confirmed Mabel had mesothelioma she was on strong painkillers, barely able to communicate. She died in March 2019.

“She was a very special lady to us and her grandchildren,” Clare said. “She was a wonderful grandmother.”

Mabel Scanlon

Mabel Scanlon - a beloved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother - died from mesothelioma in March 2019 - Credit: The Scanlon family

Asbestos in Public Buildings

Inhaling a single asbestos fibre can kill you, yet it was once commonly used in construction.

Freedom of information requests by Stephensons Solicitors LLP found this month that more than 130,000 buildings owned or run by English councils contain asbestos.

“Even placing a pin into a wall containing asbestos can disturb it and lead to dust being released,” warned solicitor Danielle Callaway.

The National Asbestos Helpline says nine out of ten NHS trusts own hospitals containing the killer substance.

In 2013, another former Whittington nurse with mesothelioma appealed for help determining how she could have been exposed.

Irwin Mitchell, the law firm which represented her, did not respond when the Ham&High asked whether anybody came forward.

In November, Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee heard from the Mesothelioma UK Research Centre that between 2004 and 2017, there were 553 successful negligence claims against the NHS for mesothelioma.

“This almost certainly understates the extent of the problem,” said Professor Angela Tod. “We have become aware of cases where NHS staff with mesothelioma have not been able to pursue a claim because they had insufficient evidence of negligence.”

Legal Claims

This is Mabel’s family's predicament. They know she very likely inhaled asbestos at work, but can’t prove when or where.

“We don’t know any contemporaries of Mum,” said Clare. “At the time Mum was working in these hospitals, we were so young.

“We felt that this potentially is something where there are more diagnoses. We want to raise awareness that people working in the NHS could have been exposed to this and don’t even know it.”

Asbestos lawyer Joanne Candlish

Solicitor Joanne Candlish from Hodge Jones & Allen law firm is helping Mabel Scanlon's family investigate how she inhaled deadly asbestos - Credit: Hodge Jones & Allen

The Whittington said it was sorry to hear of Mabel’s death and its legal department was willing to help the family’s solicitor.

The Ham&High understands that the Whittington Health NHS Trust has no record of settling any mesothelioma claims, but that they might have been referred to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) as any exposure would likely have occurred before the trust existed.

The Royal Free, which runs Barnet Hospital and previously ran Coppetts Wood until its final services closed 2008, also expressed its deepest condolences and said it would liaise with the family’s solicitors if approached.

The Ham&High asked DHSC whether it had ever paid compensation or settled any mesothelioma claims linked to the hospitals where Mabel worked. It did not reply before this story was published.

Any former colleagues of Mabel can email Joanne Candlish, of Hodge Jones & Allen law firm, at jcandlish@hja.net