Mystery exposures to asbestos in the workplace, stretching back half a century and attributed to be the cause of a claimant’s confirmed mesothelioma, are increasingly coming to the attention of asbestosis lawyers. In one recent case, an 85 year old former tradesman who was employed consecutively in two unrelated industries for most of his working life, became a victim of the incurable cancer of the lung linings despite no known source of exposure to asbestos.

The most well-known sources of exposure that eventually caused victims to develop mesothelioma, asbestos-related cancer or other asbestosis diseases were in the traditional heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, textile and paper manufacturing, power plants, engineering works, building and construction, railway and vehicle assembly. Armies of maintenance men would also be constantly repairing and replacing asbestos insulation in boilers, pipework and heating ducts. The peak period of Britain’s asbestos use began in the post WW2 reconstruction years of the 1950s, and continued through the 1960s and 70s, until the first ban on the most toxic blue and brown asbestos fibre types in the mid 1980s.

In the recent tragic case, the former painter and decorator worked at a brewery for 20 years from the mid 1950s followed by 17 years at a food processing and preserving company. But it was more than 20 years later that the retired tradesman started to suddenly become unwell, which led to the shock diagnosis of fatal mesothelioma cancer. The family was devastated by the unexpected news and are now left urging former work colleagues to help provide statements about working conditions at the time to help them with their mesothelioma claim and coming to terms with the reason for his death.

More than half work-related cancer deaths are caused by past exposures to asbestos

Of an estimated 8,000 work-related cancer deaths each year, more than half are caused by past exposures to asbestos, according to The Health and Safety Executive (HSE). More than 80 per cent of all mesothelioma deaths are known to have occurred amongst men who worked with asbestos during Britain’s peak period of use in the industrial workplace. Latest available HSE figures show that the number of deaths from the incurable cancer is, for the third year running, over 2,500, and the trend looks likely to continue until at least 2030.

However, there is also a worrying rise in the reported average “background mesothelioma risk” as a result of a non-identifiable exposure that could have occurred in the workplace during the years of peak asbestos use in the UK. During the middle decades of the 20th century, non-occupational employees often had little or no asbestos awareness as to its presence in the building where they worked, or if they did handle the materials, received no personal protection or safety information from employers. Where there was no known presence of asbestos, it could mean that a death, which was actually caused by mesothelioma, may only be identified by the Coroner as an ‘industrial disease’.

Highest incidence of mesothelioma is among victims who were young men when they started work

One common explanation for a “mystery” source of exposure is the asbestos insulation used either in the construction or renovation of the factory buildings – often in the roofing – or in most cases, as lagging wrapped around the water pipe system. The construction industry repeatedly warn that any property built up to 2000, just after a total UK ban was introduced, may contain asbestos.

Medical research has also found that the highest incidence of malignant pleural mesothelioma is among victims who were young men when they started their working lives as teenage apprentices or in their early twenties. It was only after retirement, between 15 to 50 years after the period of exposure, that the first symptoms would emerge, when the victims were aged in their 70s or 80s.

The tradesman began employment in the brewery when he was in his early 20s. While there is no current evidence to suggest that exposure occurred during his time at the brewery, increasing research appears to show that just a ‘one-time’ exposure early in life can be enough to trigger the later development of mesothelioma. Those who were aged under 30 years old when they worked with asbestos for 10 years or more are estimated to have a one in 17 chance of developing the fatal cancer.