It has long been established that until the legislation of the 1970s/80s, both Britain’s shipbuilding and dockyard workers were two of the most vulnerable groups to be continuously exposed to asbestos, the direct and consequential cause of related cancers and fatal diseases such as asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma.

The National Asbestos Helpline (NAH) recently took its roadshow to the historic dockyard town of Plymouth, cited as possessing the South West’s highest death rate for mesothelioma, and pinpointed as the UK’s third worst hot spot for the disease, with around 35 to 40 new cases occurring amongst many former dockyard workers and other tradesmen each year.

It was because of the exceptionally long gestation periods of up to 40 or 50 years, that the many unwitting victims succumbed to the delayed onset of disease when the asbestosis symptoms appeared only in the latter years of their lives. The difficulties of tracing former employers and their insurers, many of whom were no longer in business, with only a matter of months to live in many victims cases, made the process of asbestos compensation often a tragic race against time.

British Lung Foundation representatives and  Dr Clive McGavin, consultant respiratory and general physician at Nuffield Hospital, attended with Alison Seabeck, MP for Plymouth Moor View who commented, “Plymouth is a hot spot for asbestos-related diseases. A considerable number of people will have or are worried that they may have one of the linked diseases. So I wasn’t surprised to see the interest in the awareness roadshow from the people of Plymouth”.

More than 300 people attended the NAH event seeking asbestos advice and information.

Dr McGavin stressed the importance of asbestos awareness and the dangers the deadly mineral still continued to pose, which could not be underestimated, “The public must not think of asbestos as a 20th-century substance. We’re going to see the effects of asbestos well into the 21st Century because of two factors: the substance persists in pipe lagging, buildings and cement and doesn’t degrade; and also the very long period between exposure and developing a related disease. Once exposed, there is nothing a person can do to prevent future related diseases. So, while the risk of developing mesothelioma from DIY is small, the health cost is extremely high.”

Unfortunately, the industrial practices of the past means that Plymouth has been left with a terrible legacy and a continuing risk of exposure, with the number of mesothelioma deaths predicted to rise, simply because of the long latency period before the onset of the incurable disease.