PEOPLE across York probably breathed in deadly asbestos dust from the former York carriageworks in the late 1950s and 60s, a former union leader has claimed.

Paul Cooper, 72, who worked at the factory in Holgate Road from 1959 until 1996 and has long campaigned about employees' exposure to asbestos, said huge extractor fans were fitted in an asbestos spraying workshop in the late 1950s which pumped dust into the air.

"The dust could be blown by any wind, back into and around the factory or to the four corners of York, north, south, east and west, thereby putting thousands of residents at risk," he claimed.

"In fact, it is likely that many residents of York have died from asbestos disease, which to all intents and purposes was either never investigated or was put down to some more simple causation."

Mr Cooper has written a statement outlining what he witnessed of the spraying and stripping of asbestos at the carriageworks to ensure details are kept available for future reference.

He said he hoped the information might be useful to any lawyers who might in future wish to fight for compensation for either former employees or other York people who had contracted the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma.

He said spraying with 'limpet asbestos cement' commenced there in 1955 and was in full operation when he started work there in 1959, but soft asbestos sheeting was already being used beforehand as insulation in coaches to prevent wooden floors overheating and catching fire.

He said spraying operations were not enclosed and there was no extraction system in place to control the release of dust, although roller shutter doors were often opened to let residual dust vent to the outside atmosphere. Then 3ft diameter fans were installed in the outer wall of the workshop which were used until controls were introduced in 1968.

Asked to comment on Mr Cooper's claims, Dr John White, consultant in respiratory medicine at York Hospital, said that whenever he and colleagues diagnosed someone with mesothelioma, they looked for evidence of past exposure to asbestos.

"The vast majority of these patients have a recognisable exposure, often as a result of their employment, and we rarely see patients who are diagnosed with mesothelioma without this clear link," he said.

"Mesothelioma is a cancer largely caused by exposure to asbestos, and cases that occur without asbestos exposure are very rare.

"Mesothelioma is a specific type of cancer affecting the lung and is less common than lung cancer itself. In York all types of lung cancer and cases of mesothelioma are carefully reviewed by a team of doctors and other clinical specialists in order to give an accurate diagnosis, with many cases of lung cancer being caused by smoking."