New Ministry of Defence (MoD) data reveals that former workers at the Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth – known to have one of the highest rates of asbestos-related illness – have over ten years received asbestos compensation totalling more than £35 million.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act serve as a reminder that the use of asbestos as an insulation and fireproofing material was widespread throughout both Britain’s commercial and naval dockyards until at least the 1970s and 80s.

It was only the slow but growing asbestos awareness to the long-term health risks of exposure becoming linked to asbestosis diseases and fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer that the first UK asbestos ban was finally introduced in the mid 1980s.

During the peak asbestos period from the 1940s onwards, over 300 asbestos containing materials were commonly installed by dockyard workers around Britain to insulate a ship’s boiler, bulkhead and exhaust systems. In addition, asbestos lagging would be used to line electrical fixtures, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves, hot steam pipes, hot water and fuel lines, turbines, compressors and condensers.

Between 2001 and 2006, the MoD paid out nearly £16 million in mesothelioma compensation, and according to a recent Freedom of Information Act request, were found to have settled 273 cases totalling just over £19 million between 2006 and 2013.

Mesothelioma claims could be treated differently

However, the MoD has said that asbestosis or mesothelioma claims could be treated differently according to whether they were made by “military personnel or civilian employees” and on the basis of “whether or not the Ministry of Defence has a legal liability to pay compensation.”

While it is known that shipbuilding and dockyard workers were two of the most vulnerable groups to be continuously exposed to asbestos in British industry during the mid twentieth century, naval and military personnel were equally as likely to be exposed to inhaling asbestos fibre dust particles.

Up until now Armed Forces personnel exposed to asbestos during service before May 1987 have been prevented by law from receiving MoD compensation due to “crown immunity.” However, the passing of the recent Mesothelioma Bill, which received “Royal Assent” in January and due to become law in July, has allowed the legal obstacle for receiving compensation to be removed.

Unfortunately, severe limitations to the terms agreed for the Bill mean only claimants diagnosed with mesothelioma after 25 July 2012 will be eligible – and are only entitled to 75 per cent of the average settlement paid out in a civil case. The new legislation also excludes the many other victims who suffer from other asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis and pleural thickening.

Second highest mesothelioma fatality rate

The future outlook for mesothelioma sufferers in the high asbestos dockyard hotspots of south west England, particularly in cities such as Plymouth where the Devonport Dockyard is located, is not encouraging.

As far back as the mid 1960s, a survey of 10 per cent of the Devonport dockyard population showed that 4-5 per cent of men aged 50-59 years displayed abnormalities of the lung or pleura, probably caused by exposure to asbestos fibres. A similar survey of 10 per cent conducted at the dockyards at Chatham and Portsmouth revealed that nearly 3 per cent also showed abnormalities likely to have been caused by the inhalation of asbestos.

Even as recently as February 2012, it was found that the second highest mesothelioma fatality rate occurred in the Medway area of the South East, including the towns of Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham, where 104 deaths from mesothelioma were recorded between 2006 and 2012.

Between 2008 and 2012, of the 396 mesothlioma deaths recorded in Devon and Cornwall, 120 people lived in the Plymouth area, as follows: Plymouth Sutton and Devonport (34), South West Devon (31), Plymouth Moor View (28), South East Cornwall (27).