When a diagnosis of mesothelioma is confirmed, the patient may be completely bewildered as to how and where they might have been in contact with asbestos.

While many thousands of engineering, manufacturing and maintenance workers were directly handling asbestos insulation materials every day there were also many men and women who simply become unwitting victims to asbestosis diseases as a result of “environmental” exposure.

Any type of public, commercial or residential building, from a school or hospital to an office, shop or council flat may be constructed or refurbished with asbestos insulation at any time up to just 15 years ago when white asbestos was finally banned.

At a loss to account for where exposure occurred

Today’s asbestos awareness and understanding of the risks of exposure may be unrecognisable from the lack of information and protection provided to workers during the height of its widespread use from the 1950s to the late 1970s and 80s. However, on many occasions elderly victims can be completely at a loss to account for where and when they breathed in the deadly fibre dust particles.

In one recent case, a professional musician who was diagnosed with mesothelioma at the age of 83 had puzzled over where it was possible he could have been in contact with asbestos to contract the fatal incurable cancer, and could only think of two possible answers.

Significant quantity in the various buildings

The first possibility referred the musician, a flautist who played in the London Symphony Orchestra for thirty years, to when he worked at the Chelsea Barracks, and known to contain a significant quantity of asbestos-containing materials in the various buildings and structures. When the 5 hectare site was redeveloped in 2008 the plans also included provision for the removal and disposal of asbestos lagging from a redundant central heating system.

The musician also thought he may have breathed in the deadly fibres when handling a type of wall plug fixing containing asbestos powder.

Asbestos plug formed by hand

Invented by John Joseph Rawlings in 1911, and marketed under the brand name Rawlplug the early plugs were thick-walled fibre tubes, made of parallel strings bonded with glue. However, another widely used type of plug came in the form of a powder mixture composed of dry white asbestos fibres, which was supplied in a tin. After mixing the powder with a few drops of water, the asbestos plug would then be formed by hand into the correct shape and length required for the wall fixing.

It has been estimated that there at least three hundred types of asbestos products being produced for a wide variety of industrial, commercial and domestic applications. Up until the late 1970s and early 1980s, nearly all building industry products were likely to contain asbestos fibres, including millboard, drywall board, plaster, drywall tape, taping compound and cement.

Strongly suspect asbestos

Asbestos Insulating Board (AIB) was the most commonly used building material for constructing partition walls, fireproofing panels in fire doors, ceiling tiles, soffits and panels below windows. Loose fill asbestos was also typically applied in between cavity walls, under floorboards and in loft spaces.

Textured or sprayed ceiling coatings and wall cladding were also popular decorative effects while insulation would be typically used in cement panel ceilings, lagging around boiler flue pipes and ducts, cold water storage tanks, roofing felt and eaves, soffits, gutters, and rainwater pipes.

It’s likely that it may never be known for certain where exactly the flautist came into contact with asbestos and inhaled the dust particles. Cases where mesothelioma patients are unable to determine how they were exposed to asbestos are rare. Most victims can clearly recall either handling asbestos in their workplace or strongly suspect that asbestos was present.