Into 2017 – and are we now one year nearer to the expected peak of mesothelioma fatalities? The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have suggested that the number of victims who will lose their lives to the incurable cancer of the lung linings will decline from 2020. Previously reported forecasts tended to be more pessimistic, suggesting that the average annual toll of 2,500 could continue at the same level or even higher until at least 2030.

The predicted timeline would mean that more than 100 years would have passed since occupational exposure to asbestos was first linked to illness and death from fibrosis of the lungs and tuberculosis. A medical paper published in the British Medical Journal in 1924, was the first to briefly mention the fatal outcome of asbestos exposure, which occurred at a Rochdale textile factory. Soon afterwards, the term ‘asbestosis‘ was increasingly used as asbestos awareness led to investigations into the causes of the condition.

Legacy continues to haunt UK cancer mortality figures

In the years following the Asbestos Industry Regulations of the early 1930s, it was believed that the cancer risk was reduced for those who worked in Britain’s asbestos factories. In 1960, when asbestos imports had risen from 123,000 tons per annum in the 1950s to nearly 170,000 tons each year, one research study even suggested that the risk was “largely eliminated”. Meanwhile, throughout the asbestos-using industries of Scotland, northern England, the Midlands and the South Coast, company employers continued to allow their workforce to directly handle asbestos without any safety protection or access to health information.

The increasing medical evidence of Britain’s heavy industrial asbestos use throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s eventually led to the first ban introduced on the most toxic brown and blue fibre types in the mid 1980s. However, the legacy of continues to haunt the overall UK cancer mortality figures more than 30 years later. White asbestos imports were only officially banned at the end of 1999. In the twenty-first century, around 13,000 deaths from occupational lung disease and cancer are estimated to be caused by past exposure, primarily to chemicals and dusts at work, which includes mesothelioma fatalities.

There seems to be no end to the devastation blighting the lives of ordinary people caused by workplace practices of Britain’s asbestos-using industrial past.

Number of mesothelioma deaths in Britain had surged

In July 2016, the HSE published their latest “Statistics on Fatal Injuries in the Workplace in Great Britain”, which showed that the annual number of mesothelioma deaths forecast to drop to around 2,100 deaths in the year 2016 had not taken place. Instead, the number of mesothelioma deaths in Britain had surged above 2,500 and not fallen back over the past three years. The figure was also above the projected number of 2,431 mesothelioma fatalities estimated in a 2009 government study.

Then in November 2016, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) published more worrying news. The number of deaths from mesothelioma has jumped by nearly a third, according to HSE estimates, indicating that six people could now die of the fatal malignant cancer every day in England and Wales. Between 2000 and 2011 – mortality rates had increased by 20 per cent and 40 per cent in men and women, respectively. The number of male mesothelioma cases had steadily risen by more than 11 fold between the 1970s and 2011, and by 8 times over for female victims of the fatal disease during the same period, according to the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Former asbestos industry regions centred around shipbuilding highlighted

Once again, the greatest suffering from historic exposures is experienced in the former asbestos industry regions centred around shipbuilding. Highlighted are those workers in Barrow in Furness in Cumbria – with more than two and a half times the rate of deaths than the national average – followed by North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Newcastle Upon Tyne. Between 2010 and 2014, Wearside was also in the top twenty of regions most affected by the impact of continued mesothelioma death rates, and Sunderland scored highly on the national table of mortality rates.

Figures for the south east dockyard areas also show mortality rates far higher than the national average, including Fareham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. In February 2012, it was found that the second highest mesothelioma fatality rate occurred in the Medway area of the south east, including the towns of Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham, where 104 deaths from mesothelioma were recorded between 2006 and 2012.

It has long been known that shipbuilders and dockyard workers were one of the most vulnerable groups of workers directly handling asbestos insulation, particularly engine and electrical fitters, shipwrights, joiners, boiler and asbestos pipe lagging installers. However, an increasing number of innocent victims of asbestos exposure never worked with the deadly insulation or even knew that they were in potential danger of breathing in the airborne dust particles.

Asbestos could be present in any premises built up to 2000

An estimated 8 in 10 of the nation’s 29,000 schools are likely to still contain significant amounts of asbestos. An increasing proportion of mesothelioma cases now involve female victims in their 50s and 60s. Cases are regularly reported of women who worked at everyday occupations in buildings constructed or being renovated with asbestos containing materials at any time from the 1960s through to the 1980s or beyond.

The HSE and the professional construction industry repeatedly warn that asbestos could be present in any premises built up to 2000. The average time in which inhaled fibre particles could potentially develop into an asbestos-related disease is around 30 to 40 years but could also be to 50 or 60 years Those individuals exposed to asbestos in the 1980s or later may not see the first asbestosis symptoms appear until after 2030.

In 2017, the potential high mortality from historic asbestos exposure looks set to continue. Previous data research warns that the number of mesothelioma deaths could actually reach more than 2,800 every year by 2025.