The tragic history of asbestos exposure in the dockyards and shipbuilding industries of Scotland, and the north and south coast areas of England throughout much of the twentieth century is well-documented. More than 300 asbestos-containing materials were used as insulation in vessels around items such as boilers, hot steam pipes, hot water, electrical and fuel lines. As recently as 2012, the second highest mesothelioma fatality rate of more than 100 deaths was recorded in Medway towns including Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham.

Despite of increased asbestos awareness to the deadly health risk of inhaling fibre dust, less well-known, however, is the high risk of contracting asbestosis diseases in the workshops of the boat building industry. More worrying still is that the incidence of fatality is related to exposure to fibreglass and styrene fibres, and not asbestos fibres, known to be the sole cause for the development of malignant pleural mesothelioma.

High number of deaths

Recent research conducted in north America has examined the deaths of more than 5,200 workers who had been regularly exposed to fibreglass, styrene, and wood dust at boatbuilding factories between 1959 and 1978. While there is no evidence to show any exposure to asbestos, nevertheless, researchers were concerned to find a high number of deaths from mesothelioma.

In recent years, other substances have been found, which can also lead to the development of mesothelioma, in particular, mineral wool, silica and aluminium, silicate-based ceramic fibres used in high temperature processes. In addition, studies show that when combined with exposure to asbestos, the chance of contracting the deadly disease is greatly increased.

While fibreglass exposure is strongly indicated as a primary cause of mesothelioma, the US researchers have not discounted the possibility that the high incidence may also be due to affected workers having also been employed where asbestos was present, or other undetermined coincidences, such as “environmental” asbestos exposures.

Classified carcinogen

The discovery of the potential risks of specific types of fibre dust unrelated to asbestos is not new and both research and legislation is ongoing. In 1998, specific types of man-made mineral fibres (MMMFs) were classified as carcinogens in Europe following the classification of ceramic fibres less than 6mm in length as a category 2 carcinogen the year before.

In both Britain North America, acceptance of the link between asbestos and fatal diseases of the lungs or stomach linings was gradual and regulation of working with asbestos was only slowly introduced from the 1060s onwards. In the UK, a ban on the most toxic asbestos types only occurred in the mid 1980s.

At present, it is generally understood and accepted that the production and handling of fibreglass can produce fibrous glass dust considered to be “a human carcinogen” if inadvertently inhaled, although the fibres have not been directly linked with the development of mesothelioma.