The grim history of asbestos use in Britain’s shipbuilding cities and towns continues to leave a fatal legacy to former dockyard workers, with one of the highest number of victims of asbestos-related mesothelioma cancer. Latest mortality figures released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reveal that the UK’s highest mesothelioma death rates are once again found in the well-known asbestos “blackspots” of former shipyards in the north of England and the south coast.

Among the most vulnerable groups of workers were shipbuilders and dockyard workers, including engine and electrical fitters, shipwrights, joiners, caulkers, labourers, rope makers, supervisors, cleaners and asbestos lagging installers.

Around 170,000 tons of asbestos was imported each year into the UK during the peak years of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Throughout most this period, and despite clear evidence of the link to asbestosis diseases, there was widespread lack of asbestos awareness to the health risks across much of British industry, including the shipbuilding yards.

Asbestos lagging was a common method

More than 300 types of insulation products were manufactured with asbestos fibres and widely used by shipyard workers to line a ship’s boiler, bulkhead and exhaust systems. Throughout the shipbuilding industry asbestos lagging was a common method to protect a vessel’s components including, electrical fixtures, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves hot steam pipes, hot water and fuel lines, turbines, compressors and condensers.

The most toxic brown and blue asbestos were finally banned in the mid 1980s, followed 15 years later by white asbestos. Yet the mesothelioma mortality rate continues to still be high in the specific regional areas of the North East and Scotland. It can take up to 50 years or more from the initial period of exposure until the first asbestosis symptoms to appear, often at the latest stages of the cancer.

Mortality rates far higher than the national average

The average rate of mesothelioma mortality for England and Wales is 4.4 deaths per 100,000 people. The latest ONS figures reveal that Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria has the highest mesothelioma mortality rate in the country at 14.3 deaths per 100,000 people immediately followed by South Tyneside with a rate of 10.9 per 100,000.

Sunderland also scored highly on the national table with a mortality rate of 7.4 asbestos–related deaths per 100,000 of the population. Over a five year period between 2010 and 2014, Wearside was in the top twenty of regions most affected by the impact of continued mesothelioma death rates.

Figures for the south east dockyard areas also show mortality rates far higher than the national average. Fareham, near Portsmouth has the fourth highest rate at 10 deaths per 100,000. Portsmouth, itself was placed eighth with a rate of 7.9 deaths per 100,000 between 2010 and 2014, followed by Plymouth with the 11th highest mortality rate at 7.7 deaths.

Lung abnormalities linked to asbestos

Medical research has consistently reported on the long history of sustained exposure to asbestos in the shipbuilding and dockyard works of south east England. In the mid 60s, researchers found that between 2 and 5 per cent of ship workers were found suffering with lung abnormalities linked to asbestos in areas, such as Plymouth and Portsmouth.

Between 2008 and 2012, of the 396 mesothlioma deaths recorded in Devon and Cornwall, 120 people lived in the Plymouth area, and in 2012 there were 104 deaths from mesothelioma recorded in the south east Medway towns of Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham.

The overall trend for all mesothelioma mortality across the UK is still high. More than 2,500 mesothelioma deaths were reported by the Health and Safety Executive in 2012 alone, a rise of nearly 11 per cent.