Occupational exposure to asbestos in Britain can still pose a potential health threat today. In a number of cases there appears to be no known reason for how a victim diagnosed with mesothelioma or an asbestosis condition was exposed to the fatal mineral fibres. A post-mortem report may simply record that the cause of death was due to an “industrial disease”.
Public perception and asbestos awareness of a continuing exposure problem is likely to be confined to reports of illegal flytipping or council plans for a landfill site. However, not a week passes without a news story of fibre dust particles found in a school, council building or even in the tunnels of the London Underground.
Asbestos “everywhere” on the Underground
Over the Easter weekend, asbestos was discovered when roof tiles fell onto the platform at Ealing Broadway, revealing so called “low-grade” asbestos in the station roof. Reference to low-grade asbestos would almost certainly refer to white “chrysotile”, used extensively as insulation in the building industry until imports were finally banned in November 1999. While recognised by government and medical bodies as a Class 1 cancer causing agent, the term “low grade or low risk” is still used by authorities to downplay the hazard.
The Central Line has been involved in asbestos discoveries before. In 2012, it was reported that asbestos was present everywhere across the entire London Underground network. Specific problem spots were said to be located at the eastern end of the line, running along the tunnel walls from Mile End station. Two years later, Transport for London announced they planned to remove asbestos containing materials from the underground network by the introduction of a train specially designed to remove the problem dust. The introduction of the train is now delayed until 2017.
The likelihood of uncovering asbestos fibres should be expected rather than dismissed as unlikely in any building constructed or renovated up to 2000, from a former factory site and high street store to the local town hall or public swimming pool.
Asbestos at Royal Mail office
Most recently, “asbestos-related material” was discovered when builders were renovating a Royal Mail delivery office in Kirkby, Liverpool. While it was claimed that the asbestos had not been disturbed, staff immediately evacuated the building, and only returned after the material had been safely removed.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate that 1.8 million people continue to be exposed to asbestos every year, which leads to around 4,000 annual deaths caused by asbestos-related disease. The overwhelming majority of those at front-line risk of direct occupational exposure involve building contractors, demolition workers and tradesmen, such as plumbers, electricians, and heating/air conditioning installers.
However, there are countless numbers of historical, indirect exposures in the workplace involving, for example, school workers and general maintenance staff who were employed to service heating systems where asbestos was used to insulate boilers and pipework.
Until the first asbestos ban in 1985, asbestos was a key source of low-cost insulation and fireproofing throughout every aspect of British industry, including textile manufacturing, shipbuilding, railway engineering and vehicle assembly. Asbestos was used to make friction materials, such as brake pads, clutch pads and gaskets. Cases are still being reported of former workers in vehicle assembly factories, transport and garage repairs who were exposed daily when replacing vehicle brake pads.
Mystified as to how bus driver’s exposure occurred
In one recent tragic case, a former Leicester bus driver died of cancer in which a post-mortem examination linked to asbestos exposure. However, family and friends are mystified as to how the exposure occurred. The deceased victim, who once worked as a lorry driver and public bus driver, used to simply transport employees to and from a manufacturing unit throughout the day. His widow is left trying to contact former work colleagues who might shed light on just when and where exposure might have occurred, and could be key contributory evidence in this type of claim for mesothelioma compensation.
Examples of victims who died from mesothelioma cancer, without any obvious explanation as to where the exposures took place, are regularly reported. Recently, an 86 year old Nottingham woman whose family suspect that exposure occurred while she was employed at a dry cleaning company between 1961 and 1968 was diagnosed with mesothelioma, and a former mould maker who died just two months after diagnosis, worked from 1950 to 1972 at a Stoke on Trent pottery where exposure to asbestos is believed to have taken place.
In a 2014 report, the HSE stated that around 12,000 annual deaths are the result of occupational respiratory diseases, of which, two-thirds were caused by asbestos-related diseases or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – still one of the most common respiratory illness, which can affect men over the age of 40. Of the 4,265 new cases of occupational lung diseases in 2013 assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB), 3,760 (88 per cent) were associated with past asbestos exposure.