Reports of exposure to asbestos-containing materials have always tended to focus upon industries such as shipbuilding, property construction and manufacturing. Today, asbestos awareness and a reminder of the continued health risks occur when the deadly fibre dust is found in a local school, hospital or another public building. But asbestos was often a ‘hidden killer’ in a variety of buildings and premises, from factory units and retail stores to libraries and prisons.

Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, around 25,000 tons of white chrysotile asbestos were still being imported and could still be used to insulate ceilings and walls, as well as lining heating and air conditioning systems, pipes and boilers. Construction industry spokesmen often caution members of the public to be alert to the likely presence of asbestos in any public private or commercial premises built up until the year 2000.

The most well-known and documented asbestos exposures were the result of directly handling and working with the material. However, there are many cases where a mesothelioma victim recalls that their contact with asbestos occurred as a result of an “environmental” exposure. This often took the form of simply being close to a site where asbestos sheeting was being worked by builders producing thick clouds of airborne fibres, which would spread across to  surrounding areas.

Routine asbestos maintenance

Even after the most toxic asbestos types were banned in the mid 1980s, routine maintenance and renovation work involved the replacement of asbestos insulation. A number of cases are increasingly being reported where female victims, in particular, are convinced their mesothelioma was caused by exposure to airborne asbestos fibres at their workplace when regular maintenance or refurbishments were being carried out.

Worryingly, cases now often appear to involve women in middle age who say they were likely to have been a victim of recent occupational exposure.

One example was a female mesothelioma victim who worked as an administrator at a west country prison between 1997 and 2007, and would often come into contact with technicians carrying out repair work on pipes lagged with asbestos.

There is usually a 15 – 50 year gestation period from exposure to the emergence of asbestosis symptoms and many sufferers tend to be diagnosed in their senior years, following retirement. Tragically, mesothelioma was diagnosed just after leaving her employment at the prison and within six months, the victim succumbed to the fatal disease at the comparatively young age of 46.

Female mesothelioma fatalities

In the last thirty years, the number of mesothelioma cases has risen in the UK by almost four-fold. Previous studies have also found a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970, and a doubling in background “environmental” exposure rate, most of which occurred in just the last ten years.

Both environmental and secondary exposures have been attributed to the deaths of around 1,200 women since 2008, alone. Research suggests that the increase in female exposure rates from environmental contact may be the result of a reduction in male occupational exposure as the use of asbestos fibres as an insulating material began to slowly decline from the mid 80s onwards.

A 2013 report by HSE “tracing mesothelioma mortality between 1968 and 2011 found some indication that mesothelioma fatality rates in the 45-54 and 55-64 age groups, “have not reduced as strongly in women as in men.” Overall the trend seems to be upwards. In June 2014, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that the number of mesothelioma deaths had increased by nearly 11 per cent in just one year to more than 2,500 in 2012.