The issue of asbestos awareness and the continuing legacy of exposure to white chrysotile asbestos, inherited from the closing decades of the twentieth century, becomes highlighted whenever another unfortunate victim of mesothelioma is reported.
On the very last day of 2011, a 58 year old Midlands man passed away from the incurable malignant cancer, having only been made aware that he possessed the disease just eight months earlier. Despite undergoing an intensive surgical procedure just four months after diagnosis, the tumours returned, which rapidly spread.
Recording a verdict of death caused by industrial disease, the inquest revealed that the fatal condition was the direct result of inhaling asbestos while working on sites as a 20 year old labourer with a building firm where asbestos was present, from 1973 to 1974.
The work duties included ‘ground work’, i.e. the sweeping of building debris, which most probably contained asbestos dust at a hospital and a high school, both types of buildings regularly reported for containing materials made with asbestos fibres.
Despite the first Asbestos Regulations introduced from 1969 to ‘manage asbestos contact’, and which made public for the first time that working with asbestos fibres was a risk to workers, overall asbestos awareness among the general workforce was either minimal or non-existent.
Once asbestos fibres are breathed in they remain lodged in the linings of the lungs, eventually causing asbestosis disease or developing into the fatal cancerous tumours of mesothelioma.
The use of asbestos in UK industry as a cheap, flexible and highly effective heat insulating material persisted right up until 1985 when the UK Asbestos (Prohibition) Regulations first attempted to actually ban the import and use of the more dangerous forms of asbestos, crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos).
Although it was not until 1992 that the use of chrysotile (white asbestos) in building products such as insulating board, textured surface coatings and roofing and cement products was sought to be banned, it was a European Commission ruling in 1999, which saw the complete prohibition of the use and import of chrysotile, finally enforced in January 2005.
The typical gestation period for mesothelioma is between 15 to 50 years before either the early signs of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms first appear. Usually, by the time of a confirmed diagnoses, the mesothelioma would have spread to a very advanced stage and survival is generally less than 12 months.
Each year, 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in the UK and the number of asbestosis claim cases has more than doubled from 574 in 2007 to 1,164 in 2010. It is predicted that a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths are to be expected by 2050.