Steve McQueen’s widow fights for asbestos victims as star said it killed him

According to the United Kingdom Newspaper the Mirror, Steve McQueen was the King of Cool, a screen icon… and a victim of a killer disease.

I wanted to revisit this 2009 article. It is just as relevant today as it was 7 years ago…

It has been 35 years since Hollywood legend Steve McQueen died, at the age of 50, from asbestos-induced mesothelioma. The incurable cancer led him to a drawn out death as he desperately sought alternative remedies at a clinic in Mexico.

His wife Barbara nursed him throughout the last six months, watching a virile man shrink away before her eyes. It is a fate many have shared. Barbara McQueen was 27 when her husband died. She has been reluctant to speak about it, despite a simmering anger that so little has been done since then to prevent, treat and cure this “industrial” disease.

Barbara, a former model who remarried 11 years after Steve died, now lives in the high plains of Montana. It is an area of mountainous beauty marred by a single fact. An hour’s drive from her home is Libby, a town the US Government has described as “the worst case of industrial poisoning of a whole community in American history”. That poisoning centers on an asbestos mine on Libby’s outskirts. It also centers on a current trial involving WR Grace, which owned the old mine, and which is accused of knowingly allowing their workers and the entire town to breathe asbestos dust. Deadly fibers laced the air near the pit and processing plant, and lay in the slag WR Grace gave to four schools for athletic tracks, an ice rink and baseball pitches. In Libby’s population of 2,600, at least 200 people have died of asbestos exposure, more than 1,000 are ill – the youngest is 13 – and a case is diagnosed every week.

“I cringe when I hear the word asbestos, “Barbara said. “It’s everywhere – in our schools, homes, buildings. When I bought this house, I made double sure there was no asbestos in it. Then I find I’m near Libby.”

Steve, star of Bullitt, The Great Escape and Papillon, began to feel unwell while shooting the Western Tom Horn. Barbara recalls him getting tired and short of breath. Soon afterwards, while making The Hunter, he began having night sweats. Finally his breathing became so bad he saw a doctor, who found “some spots” on his chest. Medics at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles – “wanting to look under the hood”, as Steve put it – found tumours in his right lung. They mentioned mesothelioma and said it was incurable and not treatable. Steve was told he had only months to live.

He told the doctors he wore asbestos-lined racing suits to ride motorbikes. He remembered joining the Marines at 16, getting drunk and being made to clean asbestos-lined pipes as punishment. He also recalled blowing up a can of beans and being made to strip asbestos lagging from yet more pipes. In a tape recording in which he was asked just before he died what caused his mesothelioma. He said: ‘Asbestos’.

Steve considered chemotherapy, until a nurse said the medicine was so toxic it would burn his skin if it got on him. “That scared the daylights out of him,” said Barbara. “We were both optimistic. Steve’s body was breaking, but his heart and his hope were strong. From the outside you wouldn’t even know his insides were breaking. “Reports appeared saying the actor had lung cancer. People assumed it had been caused by smoking. He never said a word.

Instead, he flew to a remote clinic in Mexico where a Dr William Kelly claimed he had cured cancer by detoxing the body. The treatment was useless and the tumors grew. By now the cancer had spread to his liver, pelvis, stomach and neck, but surgeons in LA thought he was too weak to operate on. The McQueens finally found a willing surgeon in Juarez, Mexico. On November 7, 1980, a day after the op, Steve died of a heart attack.

“Disgusting” is how Barbara describes the firms who knew decades ago that asbestos could cause cancer, yet continued to produce it in vast quantities. And “outrageous” is her term for the Government’s lackluster attitude. We should all listen when she says: “It is time to right a wrong that should have been rectified decades ago. Steve’s death was a long, painful ordeal and I cringe when I hear the word asbestos”.

Each year, approximately 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma. Over 100,000 sufferers have died since Steve passed away and the disease is not predicted to peak until 2025. Asbestos exposure causes many diseases in the USA including mesothelioma and lung cancer. Lung cancer is the top cancer killer in the U.S. It’s diagnosed in more than 220,000 people a year and it killed nearly 160,000 people last year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Asbestos exposure can lead to diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. If you, a family member or a friend were diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, we may be able to help. We have been assisting our clients with their asbestos cases since 1975. Please contact our office at 1-800-995-6991, for a free consultation. For more information about the Mirror Newspaper’s “Asbestos Time Bomb” effort, please click on the above link.