A former Royal Navy engineer recently diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer is unable to claim mesothelioma compensation from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) because his exposure to asbestos occurred before the 1987 cut-off date.

The retired ship mechanic, now aged 74, served with the Royal Navy between 1957 and 1965, during which time, he recalls regularly having to remove asbestos insulation by hand before gaining access to work on the pipework system. Clouds of disturbed asbestos dust would hang in the air and settle on overalls, work clothes and boots.

There is an exceptionally long period of up to 50 years or more from an initial period of exposure until the appearance of asbestosis symptoms. Consequently, the former engineer – who was only in his late teens and early twenties while working in the Royal Navy – was only diagnosed with the fatal cancer in 2015.

Widespread across British shipbuilding industry

The Royal Navy cut-off date of 1987 is linked to the introduction of the first ban on using the most toxic blue and brown asbestos types in 1985. However, white asbestos was still in use and was not banned until 1999. Until the first asbestos ban was introduced in the mid 1980s, use of asbestos as an insulation / fireproofing material was widespread across most major engineering and manufacturing industries. Britain’s shipbuilding industry, in particular, has a long history of using asbestos materials in both naval and commercial fit outs.

Asbestos was used to insulate hot steam pipes and water lines, fuel lines on pumps, turbines, compressors and condensers and the lining of boilers. Elsewhere on board, asbestos was used to line exhaust systems, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves, packing assemblies, insulation felts and adhesives, etc

Asbestosis-related claims may be treated differently

Between 2006 and 2013, the MoD settled 273 mesothelioma claims totalling just over £19 million, according to a recent Freedom of Information Act request. However, the MoD has stated that mesothelioma or asbestosis-related claims may be treated differently, based on whether they were made by “military personnel or civilian employees” and “whether or not the Ministry of Defence has a legal liability to pay compensation.”

In July 2014, The Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme (DMPS) was introduced by the government as a “fund of last resort” for around 3,500 mesothelioma sufferers who every year are unable to trace their original employer or insurer. However, only men and women diagnosed with mesothelioma after 25 July 2012 are eligible. Those victims who suffer from other asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis and pleural thickening are also excluded.

The legislation was also a further blow to former naval ship workers who are diagnosed with mesothelioma after the July 2102 cut-off date but whose period of exposure occurred before 1987.

Call for veterans to receive a lump sum

Naval veterans may, however, be eligible for a war disablement pension during their lifetime but are not allowed to receive a ‘lump’ sum. The pension is around fifth or even less of the average civil compensation for mesothelioma. Furthermore, most victims diagnosed with mesothelioma rarely survive beyond four to 12 months following a confirmed diagnosis. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) have estimated that more than 2,500 Royal Navy veterans are expected to die from mesothelioma over the next thirty years.

The Royal British Legion has called on the Government to offer veterans suffering with mesothelioma, the option to receive a lump sum broadly comparable to payments awarded under the July 2014 DMPS mesothelioma scheme, instead of a War Disablement Pension/War Widow’s Pension. A British Legion spokesman said that veterans should be offered compensation “at least equal to how much the courts and the Government have decided that civilians deserve”.

“Absurd and unfair”

Cancer Research UK have also said that “Limiting mesothelioma claims to asbestos exposure after 1987 would be absurd and unfair. Mesothelioma almost never develops less than 25 years after asbestos exposure, and the risk is still increasing 60 years later.”

In response, the MoD say they are “considering whether any further flexibility can be provided for future mesothelioma claimants” under their scheme and emphasise they are clear that veterans “should not be disadvantaged as a result of their service.”

Fifteen months on from the launch of the DMPS, mesothelioma victims are still waiting as the British Legion once more calls for the plight of former armed service veterans to be urgently looked at in the little time they often have remaining.