Hiding in plain sight – the legacy of asbestos

Asbestos was once the darling of UK industry. Its fireproofing quality and flexibility, and the fact that it could be easily added to a range of materials from textured wall coatings to gaskets for ocean liners, made it seem a miracle substance. Just like many apparent blessings, though, it had a terrible consequence. As we now know, exposure to asbestos can result in severe health issues including asbestosis and mesothelioma (an inoperable and fatal cancer) decades after the initial exposure occurred.

A recent case of mesothelioma has particular resonance with the tragedy surrounding asbestos poisoning. For four years at the end of the 1970s, Doctor Andrew Lawson was training at the internationally renowned Guy’s Hospital, London.  During the course of his working day he would utilise a tunnel between the medical school and the hospital. The shortcut was also the location of steam pipes that were lagged, as many pipes were and still are in some institutions, with an Asbestos Containing Material. Each time anyone passed through the tunnels, they were potentially exposing themselves to a deadly cloud of asbestos dust. Sadly, Dr Lawson and several of his contemporaries have since died of mesothelioma.

This tragedy that surrounds asbestos is that it has a latency period of potentially decades from exposure to symptoms developing. This means that assessing where and when the victim was exposed is often difficult, and occasionally impossible. Doctor Lawson’s case is now settled but there are potentially thousands more victims of mesothelioma who have worked in asbestos rich environments.

Asbestos was so widely used that the chances of coming across it in some trades are very high. Carpenters, painters and decorators, and similar trades, will quite likely be working in homes in the UK, and some estimates say there could be 13 million homes where asbestos was used in the construction. IT installers, pipe fitters, construction workers and many other workers are in a similar position.

Regionally, the prevailing industrial context seems highly relevant to the amount of people suffering from asbestos-related diseases. The northeast of England seems a particular hotspot, and in Stockton the rate of deaths from mesothelioma is unusually high at 8.5 in every 100,000 people. In comparison to the national average of 4.5, Stockton’s unusual statistic would seem to point to an environmental cause. The long history of shipbuilding and heavy industry in Teesside towns, two manufacturing areas that use asbestos extensively until 1999 would seem to suggest a clear link. Similarly, Barrow-In-Furness also has an unusually high rate of death from asbestos-related disease at almost three times the national average.

Asbestos makes up the largest percentage of industrial deaths in the UK and accounts for 4 times more fatalities than road traffic accidents. Despite the awareness of the extent of asbestos use in the UK, the sheer volume of in situ materials and the legacy of workers exposed decades ago means that tragedies like the early death of Doctor Lawson and high localised fatalities are likely to continue for many years to come. Awareness training for anyone potentially in danger, and a slow programme of removal or management, are the only viable options, it seems.