In 2015, the latest figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) showed they had revised up their estimated death rate caused by all asbestosis diseases, from 4,000 to 5,000 deaths each year. Since the first asbestos ban in 1985 and the final ban on white asbestos in 1999, the tragic human toll from twentieth century asbestos use continues well into the twenty-first. The annual UK number of mesothelioma deaths of around 2,120 is now expected to continue until at least 2037, according to the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP).

Government figures are equally bleak. Their latest estimate of expected deaths from mesothelioma over the next 25 years could be between 49,000 to 58,000, based on current projections. The potential total number of deaths from all diseases caused by asbestos exposure could reach 125,000.

The long term goal is to finally overcome the fatal, incurable cancer of the lung linings, which would bring hope to those men and women, many of whom are, increasingly, just into their 60s or 70s when a diagnosis is confirmed.

Genetic processes and tissue cell behaviours

Medical researchers around the world continue to study the genetic processes and tissue cell behaviours, which appear to play a key role in determining whether an individual develops an asbestos-related disease or cancer as a result of workplace or non-occupational, environmental exposure. Despite advances in better understanding the underlying complexities, in 2015 clinicians were no nearer to significantly improving life-expectancy rates.

The national average survival rate still hovers between 4 to 12 months. While some mesothelioma patients may only survive for around thirty days after surgery, others can live for at least two years. The exceptionally long gestation period of up to 50 years from asbestos exposure to the first appearance of asbestosis symptoms means that a confirmed diagnosis often occurs when the cancer has reached a very advanced stage.

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy remain the established ‘tri-modal’ treatments used in fighting the spread of the fatal tumours that form in the lung membrane. Chemotherapy is used with the aim of reducing tumour size, surgery to remove the diseased tissue, and radiotherapy to prevent a return of the cancer cells. The results can be varied as they are modest.

National screening programme

Families of victims diagnosed with mesothelioma say that a national screening programme for the early detection of asbestos-related cancers could help extend life expectancy. Investment in standard X- ray or blood tests could be a vital first step in early detection, according to Scotland charity, Clydeside Action on Asbestos, at this year’s general meeting.

Body scanning technologies are of course, a well-known method to provide key visual information on a patient’s cancer, growth and spread. Increasingly, doctors turn to liquid biopsies. Testing for specific biomarkers in lung fluid may offer doctors a reliable way to help diagnose malignant mesothelioma, even without a tissue biopsy and can be repeatedly sampled as the cancer progresses.

Total elimination of asbestos from every building

Asbestos as a readily available, low-cost source of anti-corrosive and fire proof insulation was used in almost every type of public, private and commercial building across Britain. Around 170,000 metric tons of asbestos was imported each year into the UK up until the 1980s and around 10,000 tonnes of white asbestos was still being annually imported in the years following.

Many organisations believe that only the total elimination of asbestos from every building known or suspected of containing asbestos will solve the problem of potential future risk. Following the European Economic and Social Committee recommendation in 2014 for the “total removal of all used asbestos and all asbestos containing products” across the EU a Parliamentary Group has recently called for a “timetable” which will see the removal of asbestos from every single workplace in Britain by 2035.

Lump sum payments due for veterans

On another more positive note, there is finally good news on the way for Armed Services veterans in 2016. From 11th April, new legislation being brought in will allow veterans the choice of a lump sum payment or a regular smaller payment. Concern had increasingly been expressed that veterans had been unfairly disadvantaged compared to civilian mesothelioma sufferers.

The Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme (DMPS) was introduced by the government in July 2014 as a “fund of last resort” for around 3,500 mesothelioma sufferers who every year are unable to trace their original employer or insurer. However, only victims diagnosed after the 25 July 2012 cut-off date would be eligible to apply.

In the case of former service veterans, only those who can prove that their exposure to asbestos was due to the negligence of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) would be able to make a claim, while serving members of the armed forces are excluded. The exemption is aimed specifically at ex-service men and women who were exposed before 1987 as up until this time, the Crown was granted “immunity” from prosecution.

The MoD stated that mesothelioma or asbestosis-related claims could be treated differently, based on whether they were made by “military personnel or civilian employees” and “whether or not the Ministry of Defence has a legal liability to pay compensation.”

Disadvantage faced by some veterans

Instead, victims would be provided with a War Disablement Pension during their lifetime as opposed to a “lump sum” payment awarded to civilians. Tragically, most victims diagnosed with mesothelioma rarely survive beyond one year, and the maximum payment they could receive would only be around £31,000 while average civil compensation for mesothelioma is more than £150,000.

The Royal British Legion continued to press the MoD to consider offering lump sums and correct the disadvantage faced by some veterans. Under the new legislation, all veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma on or after 16th December 2015 will be given the choice between receiving a traditional War Pension, or £140,000 in lump sum compensation. Unfortunately, there are around 60 veterans who currently receive a War Disablement Pension for mesothelioma who will still be unable to apply for the new lump sum compensation award.

Unfair hurdles to obtain justice and financial relief

The new legislation, however, is a positive step forward into 2016 for victims of asbestos exposure. Men and woman who are diagnosed with a malignant mesothelioma can still face unfair hurdles to obtain justice and financial relief to help with their treatment and care in the time they have left.

In many cases, it is left to their spouses and close family to call upon former work colleagues to provide witness statements on working conditions in an era where the presence of asbestos dust was as commonplace and accepted as cigarette smoke. Tragically, in 2016, the pale white dust will continue  to leave a ghostly trail of suffering for thousands of British workers more than a century after asbestosis was first identified.