At the start of the 20th century there were around 300 paper mills in the UK, which employed 35,000 people. The era of digital printing began when the first digital printing presses came onto the market in the early 1990s. Today there are fewer than a dozen paper mills left. Nevertheless, former workers who were exposed to asbestos at the mills during the 1960s, 70s and 80s are still being diagnosed with mesothelioma, decades later.

The latest victim to recently lose their life to the fatal, incurable cancer of the lung linings was employed at a Kent paper mill for 35 years during the peak period of asbestos use. Alongside shipbuilders, railway / vehicle assemblers, power and construction industry workers, those employed at paper mills still continue to be tragic victims of asbestosis diseases as a result of occupational exposure.

Doubly exposed

The lack of asbestos awareness to the health dangers meant that paper mill workers could often be doubly exposed to risk every day. Asbestos fibres were used as strengthening additives in manufacturing processes as well as insulation materials installed within the fabric of a factory building itself. Asbestos was also added to talc powder, which was exclusively used in paper bleaching and refining. However, most asbestos exposures in paper mills were the result of equipment maintenance. One example would be the replacement of dryer machine felts, which would release asbestos dust when new felts were hand cut to be fitted into the machines.

The most widespread use of asbestos was in the lining of boilers and the insulation or “lagging” of hot water pipes and vessels involved in the high temperature processes of pulping and paper production. An army of maintenance men were employed to constantly repair and replace machinery, equipment and pipework, which also involved directly removing and replacing the asbestos linings.

Cutting with a hacksaw

Between 1960 and 1995, the victim at the Kent paper mill worked as a plumber and maintenance man. One of his tasks involved repairing the factory’s extensive network of steam pipes, which appear to have been lagged with asbestos.

In a statement – the victim now in his late 80s – said he had to remove the insulation from around the pipes by cutting with a hacksaw to gain access to a faulty seal or valve underneath. As a result of loosening to remove the asbestos by hand, quantities of dust were released into the air and fell into his overalls, hair and skin. As was frequently the case at that time, the victim mentions the company failed to supply a breathing mask or protective equipment.

However, it was more than 20 years after retiring from the paper mill before the former maintenance plumber was diagnosed with incurable mesothelioma cancer after experiencing a slow deterioration in his breathing. Sadly, the victim passed away less than a year later, leaving the family to ask former work colleagues to provide their accounts of working conditions at the paper mill.

Asbestos would simply fall away from the pipes

In the same year, a former machine operator at a Hertfordshire paper mill during the 1970s was diagnosed with asbestos-related pleural plaques – a fibrous thickening of the membrane tissue surrounding the lung. He recalled that the asbestos pipework lagging at his factory was “old and in a poor state”, and would simply fall away from the pipes and be trampled underfoot.

Another worker at a paper mill in the south east died just six days following a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma. Also in his late 80s, the deceased was employed as an electrician between 1947 until retiring in 1988. He worked mostly in the mill boiler house where he was likely to have been exposed to asbestos used as pipework lagging and lining the boiler.

Asbestos present in buildings for decades

The industrial use of asbestos as insulation in the UK began to decline from the late 1970s and the first ban introduced for the most dangerous blue and brown fibre types in the mid 80s. However, thousands of men were still working in factories and other workplaces where asbestos was present in the buildings for decades afterwards.

The final figure for all exposures during this period may never be known although around 85 per cent of all male mesothelioma cancers can be traced to occupational asbestos exposures, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).