Asbestos awareness, for circumstances when it is least expected, is of course, still a matter of life and death. One vital group of workers in constant danger of exposure to asbestos yet rarely mentioned are the emergency services.

It is only when police, fire or ambulance crews are called to premises affected by fire, flooding, earthquake, or demolition work that the presence of asbestos hidden in the fabric of the building reveals itself by the release into the atmosphere of their deadly fibre dust particles.

Two recent examples, which show how the enduring legacy of widespread asbestos use in UK building throughout the twentieth century is still a daily threat to ordinary workers’ lives today, concerns fire-fighters and the police force.

A recent house-fire in Plympton, Devon, exposed ten firemen to asbestos lining the walls of a bathroom, which they had to physically remove to gain access to the flames burning within the lath and plaster. Unfortunately, they had removed their breathing apparatus before the exposure.

The house is located in a town nearby to Plymouth, it’s docks well known for past use of asbestos in ship fit-outs and the corresponding high incidence of mesothelioma and other asbestosis diseases amongst the workers and town inhabitants.

Despite the most dangerous forms of asbestos ( amosite and crocidolite) being banned in the mid 1980s by the introduction of the Asbestos (Prohibition) Regulations, the less toxic form, white chrysotile asbestos, was still in use as a heat insulating building material in wallboard, ceiling coatings, and cement products. Buildings constructed or renovated up until the 1990s are still likely to contain asbestos.

If worn or damaged by heat or moisture, the material can be found in a highly friable ( fragile and disintegrating) condition, liable to release dust particles if handled in any way. Once inhaled, the fibres lodge permanently in the linings of the lungs (pleura) and could eventually cause cells to turn cancerous. A long gestation period of up to 50 years can elapse before asbestosis symptoms emerge and positive diagnosis. Mesothelioma is often discovered at an advanced stage and patient survival can be less than 4 months.

A second example relating to the police, reflects the above progress of mesothelioma commonly experienced decades after asbestos exposure. A 73 year old former policeman who was with the West Midlands Police from 1956 to 1990, died from mesothelioma less than four months from the first appearance of symptoms. Since a recorded verdict of ‘industrial illness’ last year, his widow has been attempting to establish the cause of the exposure in her mesothelioma claim.

From the evidence collected, it now seems likely that the victim had been handling asbestos material – a common occurrence at the time – when clearing a room at the police station itself during the 1970s.

The latest figures just released by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) show a steep increase in the number of mesothelioma deaths in the UK, up from 2249 in 2008 to 2321 deaths in 2009.