Once again, we are concerned to hear the latest news report of a middle-aged man who succumbed to the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer nearly three decades after the strong likelihood of repeated exposure to asbestos insulation.

It is believed that the victim, a 51 year old physician who only became aware of his condition when he started to suffer with the early asbestosis symptoms of shortness of breath, inhaled asbestos fibre dust when a student at the University of Birmingham.

Deteriorating asbestos

According to his spouse, her late husband recalled the many occasions he would walk to and back from lectures via underground hallways connecting the University to buildings on the Queen Elizabeth Hospital campus. He suspected that he was exposed to asbestos dust fibre particles released into the atmosphere from deteriorating asbestos used as insulation lagging around the water pipes running along the length of the corridor.

Up until the first asbestos ban was introduced in 1985 – around the time the Birmingham doctor was a student – asbestos containing materials (ACMs) were widely manufactured for use in over 300 insulation products across the UK, especially in construction or renovation of public buildings such as schools, nurseries and hospitals.

Birmingham’s old Queen Elizabeth Hospital was built in the 1930s during Britain’s peak use of asbestos. Its presence within the fabric of the building was known in advance of the relocation of inpatients to the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital three years ago, accompanying plans for waste removal and site renovations.

An asbestos register and management control procedures were also put into place at the time to ensure there would be no risk to staff, visitors or patients until the future development of the site was decided.

Enclosed spaces

Growing asbestos awareness to the long term health risks of working with and exposure to asbestos led to the ban of the most toxic asbestos types. However, the construction industry would still use white chrysotile asbestos fibres in common building materials, such as wallboard, partitioning, boiler housing and pipe lagging for at least another ten years until imports of white asbestos were finally stopped in 1999.

Asbestos fibres are known to deteriorate over time and become “friable”, i.e. disintegrate, releasing fine dust particles, which can remain airborne and disperse over a wide area. The risk becomes acute within enclosed spaces where there is likely to be a lack of adequate ventilation. Friable asbestos is easy to break or crumble by hand and to be breathed in.

As recently as the 1980s, a public building such as a school could show that dangerous levels of asbestos fibre dust particles were released into classrooms from just hitting a wall or slamming a door.

No threshold level

Asbestos is classified as a Class 1 carcinogenic substance at the Government Office for Science who advise that it may not be possible “to determine a threshold level below which exposure to ‘pure’ chrysotile could be deemed ‘safe’ for human health.

The implication is that any exposure to asbestos, even so-called ‘low-risk’ white asbestos, can almost invariably, lead to asbestosis disease or the fatal and incurable malignant mesothelioma cancer, and a period of between 15 to 50 years or more is known to elapse before the onset of symptoms.