The 29th of February only comes round once in every four years but in 2012 the day was given special prominence by a short but poignant act of commemoration to remember all those unfortunate men and women who have died as a result of falling victim to the incurable mesothelioma cancer and other asbestosis diseases.

On the evening of Wednesday 29th, the names of over 120 people who lived in Derby and the East Midlands region and who died from asbestos exposure were illuminated by a light projection onto Derby Cathedral’s south side tower. The act was followed by short speeches and remembrance prayers led by a local Industrial Chaplain. The illumination will be repeated each day from dusk until 22:00 GMT until 6th March.

The event was organised by the Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team (DAST), whose aim is to raise the level of asbestos awareness to the horrific legacy and continuing health risks associated with exposure to the deadly insulating material. DAST has previously supported 82 people suffering from asbestos-related diseases in Derbyshire and 257 families in total across the East Midlands.

In common with many areas in the north of England and the Midlands, the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire were the centres of many manufacturing, engineering and construction industries throughout the twentieth century who used asbestos fibres in their products.

Until the Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR) were introduced to ban asbestos use by the mid 1980s, a lack of proper information, protective equipment and safety procedures meant that thousands of workers were daily exposed to asbestos fibres in their workplaces. Even family members were exposed through ‘secondary exposure’ when contaminated workclothes were brought home to be washed.

Inhaled asbestos fibres remain permanently embedded in the lung linings (pleura) for a long gestation period of up to 50 years before the first mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms emerge, but sometimes confused with other types of respiratory diseases. A confirmed diagnosis tends to take place at a very late stage in the spread of the disease leaving the patient with less than 6 months to live.

Asbestos awareness campaigns often focus on reminding all members of the public that white asbestos was still being used in the building industry until a final ban was implemented in 1999. Many public, commercial and residential buildings still contain asbestos and represent a health risk if not properly contained in compliance with a CAR 2006 management plan.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) there are an estimated 4,000 deaths each year as a result of past exposure to asbestos. In 2008 the number of mesothelioma deaths was 2,249, an increase of 3 per cent on 2007 and a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths are forecast by 2050.