Unusually high numbers of asbestos fibres have been discovered in the lung lining tissue of a 48 year old women who recently died from mesothelioma despite having never worked with the deadly materials. It is believed that exposure took place during on-site demolition work, which caused asbestos dust to be released into the surrounding environment.

The husband recalls that his deceased wife would walk along corridors to her car, “which was dusty from demolition work” being carried out while she was employed at a government building between 1983 and 1990. It was also noted that she and other employees had not been provided with any protective masks, clothing or equipment whilst work was being carried out in areas containing asbestos.

Potential high risk, no matter how brief

The coroner’s report once again highlights the potential high risk from asbestos exposure, no matter how brief. Traditionally, the majority of mesothelioma victims have been men aged 60 years and above who worked in industries, such as shipbuilding, construction and manufacturing during the peak years of asbestos use in the UK between the 1950s and the late 1970s.

The rise in female exposure rates may be the result of a fall in male occupational exposure. The use of asbestos fibres as an insulating material declined from the late 1970s onwards as a result of legislation and increasing asbestos awareness to the severe health risks of mesothelioma and other asbestosis diseases.

But even after the first partial asbestos ban in the mid-1980s, around 25,000 tons of white chrysotile asbestos was still being imported each year for use by the construction industry to insulate ceilings and walls, as well as to line heating and air conditioning systems, pipes and boilers.

Three-fold increase in female mortality

In 2013, a report by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) into the number of deaths caused by mesothelioma between 1968 and 2011 found the mortality rate in the 45-54 and 55-64 age groups had “not reduced as strongly in women” as in men.

The number of mesothelioma cases has risen in the UK by almost four-fold in the last thirty years. However, studies also found a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970 and a doubling in background “environmental” exposure rate, most of which occurred in just the last ten years.

Since 2008 alone, around 1,200 women in the UK had died from mesothelioma, a third of whom were exposed to asbestos either at work or in their immediate environment. Many of the women are known to have worked in buildings where asbestos had been previously installed as insulation and fireproofing material, such as schools, nurseries, hospitals, government and council buildings, offices, factories and department stores. Since 1980, a total of 291 school teachers have fallen victim to mesothlioma and over 60 per cent of the deaths (177) have occurred since 2001.

Close to where asbestos was being removed

But there are many cases where contact with asbestos occurred as a result of employees simply being in close proximity to where asbestos was being removed by builders, which caused fibre dust particles to become airborne and spread to surrounding areas. Cases frequently appear to involve women aged below 60 who were likely to have been a victim of a recent occupational exposure.

Not only is their mesothelioma likely to have been caused by inhaling airborne asbestos fibres at their workplace but also there was lack of protection provided by employers. It is known that men working in UK heavy industries involved with asbestos insulation up until the late 1970s were often not issued with masks or protective clothing.

Safety equipment neglected

Even before the introduction of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 1987 to prevent workers from exposure to asbestos in the workplace, the introduction of The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 required employers to “conduct their work in such a way that their employees will not be exposed to health and safety risks” and to “provide information to other people about their workplace which might affect their health and safety”.

In many cases it would seem that as late as the 1980s and 1990s, the provision of safety equipment for employees was neglected when refurbishments involving asbestos were being carried out. The potential development of mesothelioma can be up 50 years or more from the period of initial exposure. While many victims are often diagnosed in their senior years following retirement, the numbers of middle aged women reported with the disease are increasingly being reported.