On 30 June 1968 Nancy Tait lost her husband to “a puzzling illness” which subsequently turned out to be pleural mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos exposure. Available information 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.
When her husband, Bill, died of an occupational disease that appeared unconnected to his occupation, Nancy Tait discovered that trustworthy information on how mineral fibres affect human organisms was not an easy commodity to obtain. The experience launched her second career as an occupational and environmental health investigator and campaigner.
The award of a Churchill fellowship in 1976 allowed Tait to travel all over Europe to discuss questions of asbestos safety with international experts. In April of that year her booklet 'Asbestos kills' had come out, with support from the Silbury Fund. A year later she republished it with a new introduction and completed her fellowship with a six week visit to the United States and Canada. By then she had appeared as an expert witness before the Advisory Committee on Asbestos (the Simpson Committee), and she was serving as an expert for the environment with the EEC Economic and Social Committee Study Group on Asbestos. From spring 1978 she also served as a director of the Cancer Prevention Society, a Glasgow-based cancer pressure group set up with the backing of the Scottish TUC.
The response of the asbestos industry to the rising scrutiny of asbestos safety included an intense advertising campaign in the summer of 1976. For Nancy Tait this campaign culminated in a Turner & Newall advertisement that proclaimed: ‘You know asbestos protects—Why not say so!’, which she spotted at Euston station in 1977. Outraged by the slogan she worked to set up the 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. From 1988 SPAID 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”. Tait and her organisation also provided free legal advice and supported many hundred families at inquests and benefits appeals. Beyond this, SPAID saw itself as an information service that supplied students in health & safety-related fields, concerned members of the public, welfare and medical professionals, health & safety advisors, libraries, councils, newspapers und broadcasting organisations with up to date information on virtually any occupational and environmental health threat. From 1996 the organisation operated under the name Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association (OEDA), paying tribute to its wide interests.
Tait tirelessly canvassed medical opinion and lobbied MPs, union leaders and civil servants on any aspect of occupational and environmental health threats. But asbestos continued as her main concern. She made a thorough nuisance of herself to the asbestos industry and to medical experts whose judgement on asbestosis epidemiology or the interpretation of fibre counts she found questionable, and targeted journalists who trivialised the potential health impact of asbestos. In her last decade, she contributed immensely to the banning of asbestos in 1999, to revisions of the ‘Control of asbestos at work regulations’ (2002) that introduced a new duty to manage for all non domestic premises, and to the IIAC review of benefit entitlements for asbestos-related industrial injuries (2005), which promised better compensation prospects for asbestos-related lung cancer.
In 1996 Nancy Tait was awarded an MBE, followed by an honorary doctorate from the University of Southampton three years later. Her "lonely battle with extraordinary persistence and grace to bring about a Europe-wide ban on asbestos" was rewarded with an Andrew Lees Memorial Award in 2001. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (ISOH) presented her with the Sypol Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. Nancy Tait died on 13 February 2009, the day after her 89th birthday.