Mesothelioma, the fatal, incurable cancer of the lung linings, continues to claim its victims from among the men and women exposed to asbestos in the late 1970s and early 80s – at the start of their working lives.

It has recently been reported that a Chichester heating engineer, just three years short of his 60th birthday, is the latest tradesman who has lost his life to mesothelioma, as a result of occupational asbestos exposure. Apprenticed at the age of 15 to install, maintain and repair boilers, the young man was regularly exposed to asbestos materials of the type commonly used in aspects of insulating heating systems, such as internal linings, pipe lagging, cement and insulation-board enclosures.

Some thirty years after the period of exposure, the heating installer – a healthy, life-long non-smoker – was diagnosed with mesothelioma and passed away just months later. Tragically, it was also in the mid 1980s that the first asbestos ban on the most toxic brown and blue fibre forms was introduced in to the UK but too late to save the many thousands of UK workers who had been already exposed. Equally disastrous, was the decision to allow white asbestos to continue to be used by the building trades until a final ban some 15 years later.

Health risks hardly registered

Across much of British industry at the time, asbestos awareness to the long term deadly health risks hardly registered in the average workplace and no specialist protective equipment was provided to safeguard against exposure and breathing in of the deadly fibre dust particles. Once inhaled, asbestos fibres collect in the soft tissue linings surrounding the lungs, their continued presence causing inflammation and, after a period of around 30 – 40 years, affected cells have formed fatal, cancerous tumours.

Men who began work in asbestos-using occupations in their teens or early twenties during the 1970s and 1980s, and are only now approaching retirement aged in their late fifties or early sixties, are increasingly being diagnosed for mesothelioma or asbestosis disease.

Apart from plumbers and heating installers, there were many other trade occupations who were most likely to have direct contact with asbestos materials, such as AIB (asbestos insulating board), cement products, floor and ceiling tiles, roofing sheets and sprayed surface coatings. They most frequently include builders, carpenters, electricians, plasterers, tilers, roofers, painters and decorators.

A higher risk than previously thought

The risk of asbestos-related disease in some occupations, particularly in the building industry, is now known to be higher than previously thought, and the most vulnerable were those exposed to asbestos before the of age of thirty.

A recent study by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Cancer Research UK found that those men who worked as carpenters for more than ten years before they reached 30 have a one in 17 risk of contracting mesothelioma. Data collected from more than 600 patients with mesothelioma and 1,400 healthy respondents also discovered that men employed for more than ten years before they were 30 in other key trade occupations of plumber, electrician and decorator were at a one in 50 risk.

A new survey commissioned by HSE in 2014 found that of the estimated 1.8 million people who today are occupationally exposed to asbestos containing materials in the UK, it is plumbers and heating engineers who still come into contact with asbestos more frequently than nearly all other tradesman – an average of 140 times per year, or nearly three times a week.

Protecting trade occupations from asbestos exposure continues to be a challenge. As many as half a million commercial, public and residential properties built or renovated before the 1980s and 90s are thought to still retain hidden asbestos-containing materials, especially lining boilers, heating ducts and warm air blowers no longer in use.