Men and women aged in their 60s who were exposed to asbestos at work during the 1970s and 80s, are increasingly being diagnosed with mesothelioma or asbestosis disease. A significant number are also found to have only come into contact with the fibre dust during one brief period in their late teens or twenties.

Previously, more than 80 per cent of all mesothelioma deaths occurred amongst men who worked with asbestos during Britain’s peak period of use in the industrial workplace, from the 1940s up until the mid to late 1970s.

In a recently reported case, a retired teacher aged 67, was diagnosed with the fatal incurable cancer of the lung linings, which he believes was the result of asbestos exposure at a summer job in 1970, while he was still a student.

His story is all the more tragic because of a terrible coincidence. His father was also diagnosed with mesothelioma and lost his life to the deadly disease 30 years earlier, aged 76.

Most asbestos exposure occurred during equipment maintenance

Ongoing clinical research suggests that there could be a genetic link to members of the same family developing the malignant cancer. In this case, there seems to be a more likely explanation. The son’s summer job was at a paper mill, which also happened to be his father’s workplace. Paper mill workers could be exposed to asbestos at any stage during the paper manufacturing process.

An item such as talc, which was used exclusively in paper bleaching and refining, often contained asbestos. However, as was common in many manufacturing plants, most of the asbestos exposure that occurred in a paper mill was due to equipment maintenance. Asbestos was used to line boilers, insulate pipes and vessels involved in the high temperature process of pulping and paper production.

The father was a maintenance engineer who regularly worked in spaces where hot water pipes lagged with asbestos ran across the ceiling and underneath the floor. Airborne dust could be present in the surrounding air as the fibre debris from worn lagging would tear and flake away to accumulate where the men walked along the ground.

The son is current receiving courses of chemotherapy while trying to seek answers for his condition, and help in succeeding in his mesothelioma claim. A victim or their family often have to call upon former work colleagues to recount working conditions at the time, and where exposure to asbestos may have occurred.

Men working in paper mills likely to be exposed to asbestos

Alongside large-scale production plants, such as a power station, for example, those men who worked in a paper mill were also likely to be exposed to asbestos and to later suffer from debilitating, asbestos-related conditions.

During daily routine maintenance, asbestos dust would be released from dryer felts in dryer machines. When the dryer felts had to be replaced, workers were exposed to asbestos particle dust when they hand-cut and fitted the new felt into the machines.

Those men who were involved in different production stages were also at risk of exposure to asbestos, including first line supervisors, cutting and slicing machine setters, paper goods and printing machine operators, and vehicle drivers.

Scientists have also carried out a number of studies, which suggest that there could be genetic links exerting a strong influence over an increased susceptibility to developing the fatal cancer.

Younger age groups have higher vulnerability to cancer-causing substances

One key factor suggests that an individual exposed to asbestos has a parent or direct family member who, previously, also received a cancer diagnosis. Of nearly 1,000 cases recorded between 1980 and 2012, a family link was identified in 3 – 4 per cent of all mesothelioma cases.

Research has also found that family members who had developed mesothelioma were often younger when first exposed to asbestos. The cells in in younger age groups are increasingly thought to possess higher vulnerability to cancer-causing substances.

An investigation into twenty years of medical data, which lists over 2,000 males exposed to asbestos, found that the highest incidence of malignant pleural mesothelioma was among those first exposed when they were under 20 years old. The evidence also suggests a possible genetic link in mesothelioma patients aged under 40, when compared to older patients.

Each year around 13,000 deaths from occupational lung disease and cancer are estimated to have been caused by past exposure, primarily to chemicals and dusts at work, which includes mesothelioma fatalities. The number of deaths from the incurable cancer is, for the third year running, over 2,500, which could continue beyond 2020, according to Health and Safety Executive – Statistics on Fatal Injuries in the Workplace in Great Britain, 2016.