A one-time exposure to asbestos may sometimes be thought of as “low risk”. But an inherited susceptibility to developing mesothelioma cancer or asbestosis disease can be more pronounced among different men and women. In a recently reported case affecting two generations of the same family, a son has followed his father by being tragically struck down with the same fatal cancer of the lung linings.

The majority of exposures, which was widespread during the peak years of Britain’s industrial asbestos use from the 1940s to the 1970s, occurred to men who frequently and regularly handled asbestos materials throughout most of their working lives. Victims commonly recall their own lack of asbestos awareness at the time to the health risk. Yet many employers simply neglected their duty to provide any type of protective equipment, such as a regulation breathing mask or safety information.

The consequences are still causing devastation to victims and their families more than thirty years after the first asbestos ban. An estimated 8,000 work-related cancer deaths are recorded each year, more than half caused by past exposures to asbestos, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Today, there are a significant number of cases reported where victims realise that just a brief period of exposure decades earlier may be responsible for their confirmed diagnosed of mesothelioma. In the case of the son, now in his late 60s, it is believed that his exposure may have occurred as a student when he worked during one summer holiday in 1970 at a paper mill where his father was a maintenance engineer.

Pipework commonly lined with asbestos insulation

Paper mills have a history of being linked with asbestos exposure. As with many other manufacturing / production premises and factories, a number of maintenance men would be employed to service the boiler rooms, pipework and other vessels, which were commonly lined with asbestos insulation to protect against the high temperature processes of pulping and paper production. Boilers would often be resealed with a mixture of asbestos and cement applied by hand.

Other men who were employed along the production line could also be exposed to asbestos, from first line supervisors to cutting and slicing machine setters, operators, and tenders to paper goods and printing machine operators,  even vehicle drivers. An item such as talc, for example, used exclusively in paper bleaching and refining, could often contain asbestos.

The son recalls seeing his father working in areas where pipes lagged with asbestos ran across the ceiling and along the floor. Just ten years later, the father was diagnosed with mesothelioma and passed away at the age of 76. Now fifteen years on, and in a cruel twist of fate, the son has also been confirmed with the same incurable disease.

An appeal to former work colleagues

It is a well–known behaviour of mesothelioma that the cancer may not start to develop and asbestosis symptoms appear for between 15 and 50 years after the original period of exposure. Men and women barely into their 60s can still be completely confounded to discover that they are suffering from an advanced stage mesothelioma.

Yet the son is still unable to say for certain that he was susceptible and fatally exposed to asbestos during the short summer months at the paper mill when he was in his early twenties. As with a number of cases in recent years, victims and their families often make an appeal to former work colleagues to provide witness accounts of working conditions at the time.

As Britain’s industrial age of asbestos use recedes into the past, the legacy of destruction caused to the lives of thousands who lived and worked alongside the deadly fibre dust is still set to continue well into the 21st century. Latest available HSE figures show that the number of mesothelioma deaths has risen by nearly 11 per cent from 2,291 in 2011 to 2,535 in 2012. HSE currently estimate that 5,000 people will die from asbestos exposure each year and a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths can be expected by 2050.