Northern towns of England have long been associated with asbestosis diseases and mesothelioma, the incurable cancer of the lung linings caused by breathing in of asbestos fibre dust. A verdict of “industrial disease” related to asbestos exposure is still reported in cities such as Sheffield, famous for its quality steel, but which also claims the lives of its former workers.

The widespread use of asbestos fibres in steel making, construction and manufacturing between the 1940s and the 1980s when around 170,000 tons of asbestos was being imported each year has left a fatal legacy of ‘asbestos hotspots’ throughout many areas in the north of England. The Health and Safety Executive says that Barrow-in-Furness in the north west recorded the highest mortality with 241 male deaths from mesothelioma.

At the same time that malignant mesothelioma was reported as causing the death of the retired steel workers, all in their early 80s, there was also news that as many as eight in ten of Sheffield schools were found to contain asbestos.

Worked continuously at the steel making plants

Two former steelworkers from Sheffield and one from Scunthorpe are the latest victims to have died from an industrial disease caused by exposure to asbestos. The men had worked continuously at the steel making plants for most of their working lives until retirement in the mid 1980s, just as the first ban on the use of asbestos was being introduced in the UK.

Until the most toxic brown and blue asbestos types were prohibited in 1985, the fibres were commonly mixed by hand with cement to make insulation linings for boiler rooms and hot water pipework systems. Other typical applications was sprayed surface coatings and pre-formed cement wallboards, corrugated roof sheeting, ceiling and floor tiles.

Diagnosis thirty years after retirement

As is often the case, all three men only received a diagnosis of mesothelioma nearly thirty years after retirement. The potential for cancer cells to form can lay dormant and the first signs of asbestosis symptoms may only emerge between 15 to fifty years or more following exposure. Death followed less than a year after diagnosis, which is tragically also typical for the incurable malignancy.

One of the men had been a rigger and also worked in the boiler room at the steel works. The family of the other two who were both employed at a different steel plant are calling for former work colleagues to come forward with their accounts of conditions at the time and find out how exposure to asbestos could have occurred.

Sheffield was also in the news as yet another local authority region reported to possess schools riddled with asbestos.

Teachers fear that asbestos dust will be disturbed

A number of local authorities across Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands have recently reported that a high proportion of their school premises contain the potentially hazardous insulation An estimated 65 per cent of schools in Sunderland contain asbestos and around 500 schools in Lancashire also identified as posing a level of risk.

As many as 86 per cent of primary schools and 35 per cent of secondary schools in Sheffield contain materials made with asbestos fibres, according to latest reports. The worry of daily exposure in some school premises is so high that teachers and pupils have stopped fixing posters and displays on walls with drawing pins because they fear that asbestos dust will be disturbed. Nearly 68,000 children currently attend schools in the Sheffield area, which contain the potentially cancer-causing fibres.

Sheffield is of course not alone in having an ongoing issue with trying to deal with the legacy of Britain’s asbestos use. In Greater Manchester alone, at least 1,600 of the region’s local authority buildings – including 700 schools – still contain asbestos materials. Mesothelioma fatalities in the region have also been reported to have dramatically risen by 500 per cent in the last 30 years, and predicted to continue until 2020.

Three quarters of schools contain asbestos

Between 1945 and 1975, more than four in ten schools built in England and Wales were system / modular built using insulating materials made from asbestos fibres. White asbestos was allowed to be used in building material for at least ten to fifteen years until a final ban was introduced in 1999. Recent estimates suggest that three quarters of the 29,000 schools across the UK are likely to still contain significant quantities of asbestos.

More than 20,000 people are predicted to lose their lives to mesothelioma every ten years until at least 2045. One in three male deaths and one in five female deaths will be from the worst former asbestos “hotspots” of the north of England, according to figures from the Health and Safety Executive.