Far from being consigned to 20th century history, men and women occupationally exposed to asbestos – as recently as the 1970s and 80s – continue to be the innocent victims of Britain’s widespread use of the deadly insulation fibres across heavy industry, including shipbuilding, manufacturing, construction, rail and vehicle assembly. Often, asbestos awareness is given a renewed nudge when there are cases reported of non-occupational fatalities caused by exposure to the toxic dust particles, such as in schools, hospitals, offices, retail stores and public amenities.
Other known contacts with asbestos dust occurred during “secondary” exposures by women who daily cleaned their husband’s asbestos contaminated overalls or work clothes. Often female office workers would also breathe in airborne dust released when asbestos was being removed – often without any safety procedures in place – during renovations.
Three of the biggest lung disease killers
The HSE report released in November, “Occupational Lung Disease in Great Britain 2017”, clearly points to three of the biggest lung disease killers contributing to an estimated 12,000 current annual deaths. While Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (COPD) accounted for a third (33 per cent) of all fatalities, a fifth (20 per cent) of deaths were caused by mesothelioma, and 1 in 5 – exactly the same number again – by asbestos-related cancer.
Victims and their families are still being routinely shocked when they receive a confirmed diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease up to 30 or 40 years after the probable period of initial exposure. Once inhaled, the tiny, almost invisible fibre particles settle in the lung linings, mostly resisting removal by the body’s own immune system. The potential for the tissue cells to turn cancerous can lay dormant for between 15 to 50 years or more (known as the ‘latency’ period) before the first asbestosis symptoms are triggered.
The unusual length of time is considered to be chiefly responsible for the continuing high numbers of asbestos victim numbers annually reported. It was not until 1985 that the first ban on the most dangerous blue and brown asbestos was introduced, but it would be another 15 years before white asbestos was also finally banned. Even though the peak period for asbestos use was now in rapid decline, a total of 195,000 tons of white asbestos was still allowed into the UK by the close of the 20th century.
Asbestos exposure accounted for 60 per cent of cases
The new HSE figures are once again a grim reminder of the horrific legacy inflicted on thousands of innocent men and women who, decades later, suddenly discover they are suffering debilitating, fatal lung conditions. In 2016, mesothelioma or non-malignant pleural diseases associated with asbestos exposure accounted for 60 per cent of cases reported to SWORD – the HSE funded scheme to monitor work-related respiratory disease in the UK. In the same year, 3830 (91 per cent) of the 4240 new cases of occupational lung diseases assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB), were associated with past asbestos exposure.
As a result of continuing occupational or environmental exposures throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, and the 30-40 year time lapse normally associated with the emergence of asbestos-related diseases, it’s expected that the mortality figures will not plateau until after 2020/30. After this time, mortality will still be around 2,000 per year, according to current HSE projections. Both HSE and the professional construction industry caution that any residential or commercial property built up to 2000 may still contain asbestos and a continuing risk of exposure.
The new HSE report also contains worrying figures from the Labour Force Survey, which estimates that are around 18,000 new cases of self-reported ‘breathing or lung problems’ each year. These are in addition to the 41,000 new and long standing cases among those who worked in the previous year, and 147,000 among those with any working history.
The next HSE update on Occupational Lung Disease in Great Britain is due in October 2018, during which time, another six people would have lost their lives to the fatal malignant cancer every day in England and Wales.