Pleural plaques is an asbestos-related condition, which appears unresolved to many who experience breathing difficulties and yet, are unfairly excluded from making an asbestosis claim. The cause of their exclusion goes back to a ruling handed down by the House of Lords in October 2007.

Since that time, an average of 430 new cases of pleural plaques continue to be diagnosed every year in the UK, according to Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit, IIDB 2014. The latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics 2013/14 report that more than half of the 8,000 occupational cancer deaths reported each year in the UK are caused by past exposures to asbestos, which lead to fatal mesothelioma cancer of the lung linings and asbestos cancer of the lungs.

Pleural plaques refers to the fibrous thickening and scarring of the inner surface of the lung linings (pleura), which are known “indicators” of exposure to asbestos. Even a low-dose and irregular exposure can still cause pleural plaques to form in around a half of all those who are exposed to asbestos.

The action of fibrous thickening reduces the elasticity and ability of the lung to function causing symptoms, such as shortness of breath, feeling of tightness across the chest and general chest pains. Pleural plaques are almost always present in patients with asbestos-related disease and often in patients suffering with mesothelioma but crucially, are not considered harmful in themselves, being neither cancerous nor tumour forming.

Injury claims for pleural plaques were awarded on a regular basis

It was because pleural plaques were viewed as not causing injury that in 2007 the House of Lords ruled that those with the condition could no longer make a claim for mesothelioma compensation. Up until that time, injury claims for pleural plaques were awarded on a regular basis throughout the UK

However, a ruling by the UK Supreme Court in Summer 2011 allowed those living in Scotland – followed a few weeks later by Northern Ireland – to once again, make a claim for pleural plaques. A one year only “no-fault” scheme was introduced in England and Wales by the Ministry of Justice in August of the same year. Only a very limited number of applications for ‘one-off ‘payments of £5,000 were allowed to be made to those individuals who had already begun a legal claim prior to October 2007. Since then, the position in England and Wales remains unchanged.

Even when the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme (DMPS) was introduced by the government in July 2014 as a “fund of last resort” for around 3,500 mesothelioma sufferers who every year are unable to trace their original employer or insurer, those victims with other asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis and pleural plaques were also excluded.

Also in 2014, research was published, which clearly challenged the idea that the presence of pleural plaques was benign – the basis of the Lords assertion that the condition was without harmful symptoms.

A debilitating impact upon lung capacity

The research, entitled, “A Systematic Review of the Association Between Pleural Plaques and Changes in Lung Function” pointed to “a small, but statistically significant mean difference” in the total amount of air exhaled during a forced breath and the amount exhaled in the second forced breath when compared to the performance of asbestos-exposed individuals “without plaques or other abnormalities”.

The findings were further clarified in July 2015 when the researchers explained that the statistically significant difference observed was a “2 – 4 per cent decrease in lung function…” In other words, the presence of pleural plaques can and does have a debilitating impact upon lung capacity.

It would also cast a critical light upon the 2007 Law Lords ruling, based upon the requirement for “proof of damage, loss or injury… which is actionable” to be shown as an essential element in an asbestosis claim.

Recently, a five figure sum for the “provisional harm” caused by pleural thickening and pleural effusions was awarded to a former steel worker exposed to asbestos over a twenty year period. A claim for “significant” pleural thickening may be made if it can be shown that there is a respiratory disability of between 1 and 3 per cent.

The 2 – 4 per cent reduction in breathing capacity, as confirmed in the research review could be vital data in support of re-evaluating the 2007 ruling, which can prevent those with pleural plaques from pursuing action for rightful compensation.