Technical, dental, and teachers working in laboratories, schools and colleges, are again highlighted as victims of asbestos exposure in the non-occupational workplace.

The historical risk from exposure to asbestos, which is commonly known to have inflicted the greatest long term health injury from asbestosis diseases and mesothelioma fatality was to be found in traditional heavy industries such as, shipbuilding, construction, vehicle and railway assembly, and manufacturing. More than 8 in ten of all mesothelioma deaths occurred amongst generations of men who worked directly with asbestos from the 1940s through to the 1980s.

As the widespread industrial use of asbestos declined following the first mid 1980s ban, public asbestos awareness has also focused upon non-occupational exposures. The most highlighted cases still involve those men and women exposed to airborne asbestos dust, especially in schools, hospitals, council estates and other local authority buildings, such as town hall offices, sports centres and swimming pools.

Cases of non-occupational exposures have continued to devastate the lives of those innocent victims and their families when mesothelioma is unexpectedly diagnosed some 30 to 40 years later. While exposures have been suspected to have occurred in all types of workplaces – and others more of a challenge to track down – the reporting of asbestos in technical, medical / dental or education labs can occur more frequently and be more positively identified.

Asbestos would often be used to line laboratory equipment

In the latest tragic example, a former technician at a Further Education college campus was diagnosed with mesothelioma, aged 77, thought to have been the result of exposure to asbestos during building renovations in the 1980s. The victim recalls that he would himself sweep up the dust left behind after tiles used to be “removed, replaced and drilled into” during regular refurbishments. At no time was he ever warned about the dangers of breathing in the dust nor given a breathing mask or any other form of protection.

During the height of Britain’s use of asbestos as a low-cost source of insulation in thousands of products, the mineral fibres were invariably used to protect lab equipment from heat, such as tabletops, pads, mats and wire-mesh screens used as rests for hot items, e.g. Bunsen burners, glass beakers and trays.

Asbestos would often be used to line laboratory equipment, such as ovens or centrifuges, and most notably, fume hoods – a storage unit for dangerous chemicals with a ventilation system to expel toxic fumes. Incredibly, lab workers and technicians would protect themselves from the high heat by wearing safety equipment made from asbestos woven into the materials, such as gloves, hoods, aprons, jackets and boots.

Students and staff were forced to abandon labs and offices

In 2016, it was reported that a former science teacher was diagnosed with mesothelioma in which Bunsen burner equipment made from asbestos was a contributing factor. The claimant, who spent every day in the science lab during his 11 years at the school during 1970s and ‘80s, recalls setting up the Bunsen burners with safety mats made of asbestos, which “flaked off onto clothes and into the air”.

In April this year, more than 1,600 Faculty students and staff were forced to abandon labs and offices at the University of Oxford after a routine renovation discovered asbestos in the buildings.

One month later, a 14-year study published in a Journal of Industrial Medicine reveals how dental lab technicians may be at risk of developing mesothelioma. Italian research had identified three male and one female dental laboratory technicians who were exposed to asbestos for between 10 and 30 years. It is believed that they inhaled the microscopic fibre dust particles released from a number of dental casting rings. A roll of white asbestos would be cut to size for making the crucible or casting ring to protect the metal, which would then be heated to form a crown or bridge.

During Britain’s peak asbestos-using period it is estimated that the mineral fibres were used to make more than 300 different types of insulation products wherever safety protection was required. Today, the legacy continues to claim the lives of the ordinary men and women in every type of occupation who had no idea that they were exposed every day to asbestos in their workplace.