Industrial air pollution caused by asbestos dust was a common health risk for communities in the industrial heartlands of Britain. Many hundreds of thousands of people grew up in streets close by to factories using the deadly fibres in the manufacture of around 300 insulation products between the 1940s and the 1980s.

Numerous affected areas became known as “asbestos blackspots”, predominantly in the north east of England, such as South Tyneside, Hartlepool, Sunderland, Stockton-on-Tees and Redcar and Cleveland.

However, asbestos use in the manufacture of cement, textiles, friction, insulation and soundproofing materials was widespread. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, major asbestos manufacturing works in the north and Midlands include the key areas of Durham, West Auckland, Hebden Bridge, Cleckheaton, Bolton, Rochdale, Ditton, Widnes, Wigan, Trafford Park, Tamworth and Birmingham.

“Clouds of asbestos dust…”

Despite the growing asbestos awareness to the fatal health risks eventually leading to the first asbestos ban in 1985 and a total halt to imports in 1999, for many who grew up within the vicinity of asbestos works, legislation arrived far too late.

In a recent case, a 61-year-old woman who was diagnosed with the fatal, incurable mesothelioma, lived only 500 yards from an asbestos factory near Wigan during her teenage years in the late 1960s. According to her statement, when she was growing up “clouds of asbestos dust were visible in the air and would get on our clothes.”

During her childhood she also used to play in the fields surrounding the factory and remembers asbestos dust “lining the outside window panes” and being brought in to her house, “on the shoes and clothes of visitors.”

High risk of inhaling fibre particles

The dangers of ‘secondary exposure’, when men would return home still wearing work-clothes, overalls and boots covered in asbestos dust are now well-known. Wives, daughters and other family members would also be at high risk of inhaling the fibre dust particles despite having never actually worked in asbestos production.

However, the less well-known form of exposure when asbestos dust was released into the atmosphere and would slowly spread around the nearby residential area was a common occurrence. Any exposure to asbestos, and the inhaling of fibre dust can almost invariably, lead to asbestosis disease. The unusually long gestation period of up to 50 years or more means that the first asbestosis symptoms tend to only appear when the disease has reached an advanced stage.

Air and soil samples

Even today, the undetected presence of asbestos mineral materials on former construction, manufacturing or heavy industrial sites can still pose a serious health risk to both nearby and local area residents.

Soil or air samples must be taken before any work can commence on a construction site to assess the risk to all working on or visiting the site, or to residents who live near the area. A soil sample machine collects, filters and microscopically analyses particles to provide an accurate estimate of asbestos concentrations found in the soil sample and to also predict the quantity of airborne asbestos.

Around 1.8 million people are still at risk of asbestos exposure and at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).