Earlier this year at the annual Parliamentary seminar on asbestos, the chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said that the continuing rise in mesothelioma mortality was “…a reminder of historically poor standards of workplace health and safety, which decades later are causing thousands of painful, untimely deaths each year.”

According to latest available figures, 2,535 people died from mesothelioma in 2012, almost an 11 per cent increase on 2011. In the first decade of the 21st century, the number of deaths caused by the fatal incurable cancer increased by 55 per cent, having continually risen every year.

Primary cause

It has been repeatedly pointed out that a culture of wilful disregard and a lack of asbestos awareness, knowledge or safety protection against the health risks of exposure have been a primary cause of mesothelioma fatality and asbestosis disease, which continue to cause devastation and suffering to many former workers to this day.

The importing of asbestos began around 1900 and by 1948 it was recorded by a UK production census that there were nearly 60 companies involved in the production of asbestos insulation and fireproofing materials. By 1958 the figure had reached over 90 and ten years later more than 100 enterprises were producing up to 300 different insulation products for almost every type of industrial, commercial or domestic application. At its peak, throughout the 1960s and into the 70s, around 170,000 tonnes of asbestos was being imported into the UK every year, double the amount during the 1940s.

Attitude of indifference

One notorious example of the “industrial use” of asbestos, which occurred over decades took place in Rochdale, Lancashire, where nearly 7 tonnes of asbestos waste extraction dust was dumped by one factory every week, according to a document from 1957. Additional documented records clearly illustrate the prevailing attitude of indifference shown by many factory employers to their workforce of the potential health risks of asbestos, which medical research had uncovered.

In response to Asbestos Regulations and Guidance Notes 1969, a year later, one private, internal company memo – reporting on incidents where factory inspectors had been “upsetting users of asbestos by wrong interpretation of the regulations” – reassured colleagues that “all Factory Inspectorate personnel have been properly briefed… there should be no more trouble…” In 1975, it was reported at a public meeting of an Asbestosis Action Group that the factory inspectors “did nothing for 30 years” – and – “could not have been ignorant of the risks involved in working with asbestos, and that there had been a deliberate policy of neglect…”

Occupational risk

As early as 1924, the first medical article on the dangers of asbestos dust appeared in the British Medical Journal and five years later a survey concluded that occupational exposure to asbestos dust, particularly for prolonged periods at high concentrations was a “definite occupational risk among asbestos workers as a class.” As the link with cancer began to be established, from 1931 onwards, the first of a number of Asbestos Industry Regulations began to appear and increased press coverage following the discovery of mesothelioma in the 1960s and the wider dangers of “environmental” exposure.

Despite the growing awareness to the deadly health risks, even in the years leading up to the first asbestos ban in 1985, there was still widespread lack of protection for industrial workers, tradesmen and maintenance crews directly involved in handling asbestos materials. Today, mesothelioma patients consistently refer to working in dust filled environments without proper respiratory equipment or clothing, yet had no knowledge of the potential health risk.

Tragically, a diagnosis of mesothelioma following the emergence of asbestosis symptoms after a long gestation period of up to 50 years or more from initial exposure is almost always a complete shock to the devastated victim. The HSE say that the UK has seen a four-fold increase in mesothelioma since the 1980s and more than 2,000 cases continue to be diagnosed every year.