Current Health & Safety Executive (HSE) forecasts indicate a probability that 5,000 people will be exposed to asbestos in the UK each year by 2015, and with the number of deaths from mesothelioma still on the rise, a further 45,000 deaths from the fatal incurable cancer and other asbestosis diseases are predicted by 2050.
The latest available figures clearly show an increase of 3.2 per cent from 2,249 fatalities in 2008 to 2,321 deaths in 2009 as over 2,000 diagnosed cases of mesothelioma are still recorded annually. Nearly 1.8 million people continue to be exposed as asbestos is still found in an estimated half a million properties, including, private residences, housing estates, work premises and public buildings.
Minimal asbestos awareness, often a deliberate disregard of the health risks, the slow introduction of regulations and the banning of most asbestos types only from around the mid-1980s onwards has left a horrific, unending legacy from the UK’s prolific use of asbestos as a cheap insulating material during the twentieth century.
The use of asbestos fibres was so widespread, especially in the urban centres of UK industry in the North of England and the Midlands, very few were not unaffected, no matter where they worked or lived. Consequently, it has become necessary to categorise the many thousands of victims of mesothelioma or asbestosis according to their occupation and level of exposure.
Thus, “First Wave” victims of exposure refer to all the men and women who originally worked in the many different types of factories, engineering works, vehicle assembly lines, shipyards, construction and manufacturing industries where asbestos fibres were commonly used in products as a heat insulator, fire retardant, anti-friction or anti-corrosive.
“Second” and “Third Wave’ victims refer to domestic property owners who are exposed to asbestos during home renovations or those employed as builders, carpenters, painters and decorators, plumbers, electricians, plasterers, tilers and property clearance / demolition services.
Included are individuals working in public services where accidental exposure can occur in schools, hospitals and libraries, etc. This category extends to the emergency services, such as fireman and ambulance crews called to a premises containing asbestos exposed to the air by fire, water or structural damage.
Despite a ban on some asbestos types, the building industry continued to use products made from white chrysotile asbestos in homes and workplaces until the 1980s at least. It is often the case that asbestos discovered in a friable (worn or fragile) condition is highly susceptible, if handled in any way, to release the deadly fibre dust particles into the surrounding air. Once inhaled, the fibres lodge permanently in the pleura ( lung linings), the irritation eventually causing scarring, thickening, effusion or mesothelioma cancer.
The peak period of UK asbestos use occurred from around the 1940s until the 1980s, with chrysotile imports finally banned in 1999. However, the long gestation period of between 15 to 50 years from first exposure to the eventual appearance of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms, when disease is likely to have reached an advanced stage, too often means an elderly patient would only have a 4 –12 months survival rate.
Ongoing research conducted in the last 40 years has confirmed that those men and women who experienced prolonged exposure to asbestos, especially in their early twenties, were three times more likely to develop cancers such as mesothelioma.