Exposure to asbestos and a claim for mesothelioma compensation is a battle in which military veterans can still be involved in fighting. The recent move to demolish a sixty year old army barracks in Limassol, Cyprus because of the presence of asbestos materials has not only raised a local asbestos awareness issue. It also serves as a reminder of the risks of exposure faced by British soldiers billeted at the camp at any time up until 2000, when they were relocated to a new base.

The most well-known of the challenges that veterans fought to overcome in recent years was the Ministry of Defence (MoD) exclusion of ex-service men and women from receiving the usual “lump sum” payment if they were exposed to asbestos before 1987 while on active service. Instead they were to be provided with a War Disablement Pension during their lifetime. Just 12 months ago, in April 2016, the MoD finally changed their policy. However, those veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma after 16th December 2015 were still to be denied a lump sum award.

Bunks positioned below asbestos-covered pipes

Historical exposures to asbestos tended to mostly involve naval veterans serving aboard vessels fitted out with the deadly fibre insulation. Asbestos was used to insulate boilers, hot steam pipes, water and fuel lines to pumps, turbines, compressors, condensers, and to form gaskets for exhaust systems, connectors and manifolds. Various ship parts were also often coated in asbestos to prevent fires at sea.

Naval serviceman aboard warships often slept in bunks positioned below asbestos-covered pipes, and many veterans recall regularly shaking off the fibre dust when they awoke. The construction, repair, renovation or demolition of ships exposed Navy personnel as well as shipbuilders and dockyard workers to airborne asbestos dust.

However, naval vessels were not the only environments where servicemen were at risk of asbestos exposure. Army and military vehicles contained gaskets, clutches, and brake pads made with asbestos. As with many buildings constructed between the 1950s and the early 1980s, army barracks were often built with asbestos-containing materials, such as cement mixtures, exterior roofing and floor tiles, and the plumbing systems lined with asbestos insulation.

Roofs of the living quarters made from asbestos

A typical example is the Berengaria army estate located in Kato Polemidia, Limassol, Cyprus. Purchased by the MoD in the 1950s, the 260,000 square metre area contained 194 buildings including, 200 houses built between April 1955 and September 1957. The base, which has been derelict since all personnel moved to a new estate in 2000, has been earmarked for demolition primarily due to the roofs of the living quarters made from asbestos.

Any military personnel and their families who lived on the estate at any time over the 45 years, were potentially at risk of asbestos exposure. It was also likely that asbestos materials were present in other buildings on the site, including a school, a community and medical centre, YMCA, library, messes, shops and three churches.

The extent of the historical risk is reflected in the current dangers of contact with the asbestos, contained in a Public Works Department report. Also highlighted is the impact that a proposed demolition of the entire site will have upon nearby residents and the local environment. A number of special health and safety measures have been proposed by the department to prevent any undue risk during the demolition including, keeping asbestos containing materials wet at all times and using manually operated tools rather than electric tools.

Veterans unaware of the potential asbestos exposure dangers

A key problem for any individual who is exposed to asbestos is the potential 30 – 40 years or more that can elapse before the emergence of asbestosis symptoms – usually difficulty in catching the breath and/or pains in the chest. There may well be a number of veterans who were stationed in Cyprus and lived on the Berengaria estate, but were unaware of the potential asbestos exposure dangers.

As recently as 2011, the MoD awarded significant damages to the families of three army personnel, who later developed mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure while living at military bases during the 1950s.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) conclude that more than 2,500 Royal Navy veterans will die from mesothelioma over the next three decades. But how many army veterans could also become future victims of asbestos exposure as a result of being billeted in a barracks here or abroad at any time up until 2000?