The use of asbestos as an inexpensive anti corrosion and heat resistant insulator in shipbuilding industries and dockyards in the industrialised countries of the world, including the UK, is well known.
However, even today, asbestos awareness of the true extent of the fatalities caused by exposure to the deadly material only come to light when latest asbestosis figures are released or news of the latest victim is reported in the press.
It was only in February 2012, that the Medway area of the South East, including the towns of Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham, recorded the second highest mesothelioma death rate of 104 deaths or just over 6 deaths per 100,000 people between 2006 and 2012. Click here to read more.
Until the most toxic forms of asbestos were banned in the UK from the mid 1970s and 1980s onwards, asbestos insulation materials could be still be used in shipbuilding to enclose hot steam pipes, hot water lines and fuel lines on pumps, turbines, compressors and condensers. Ship’s boilers contained asbestos brick and asbestos liners, exhaust systems, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves, packing assemblies, insulation felts and adhesives.
A 1965 survey at the Devonport Naval Dockyard, found that that 4-5 per cent of men aged 50-59 years showed abnormalities of the lung likely to have been caused by exposure to asbestos dust. A similar survey at the dockyards of Chatham and Portsmouth found between 2 and 3.4 per cent displayed abnormalities most probably caused by asbestos exposure.
The long gestation period of up to 50 years or more from the time when asbestos fibres are inhaled to the emergence of asbestosis symptoms can cause confusion with similar respiratory diseases, which may only be mentioned in passing at a coroners’ inquest.
The recent death of a 89 year old former Barrow shipyard worker was officially recorded as bronchopneumonia, attributable to pulmonary fibrosis, even though the victim’s widow said her late husband did mention his exposure to asbestos while working at the shipyards.
The coroner, who also stated that “ asbestos exposure was proven to have occurred and could be almost certainly linked …” went on to claim that of the 100,000 individuals who worked in the shipyard since the war, the majority of whom died from relatively common ailments like heart disease and stroke, “a significant number will” have died from asbestos exposure.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), an estimated 2,000 cases of mesothelioma continue to be diagnosed and around 4,700 asbestos disease related fatalities are recorded in the UK.