A significant proportion of the 75 million miles of telephone cable wire connecting more than 23 million residential properties across the British Isles is made from copper and could be up to 140 years old, according to recent research.

Modern telecomms look to gradually close traditional phone networks and move customers to a fibre-optic based broadband system. However, the legacy of asbestos use in thousands of building insulation products, which inevitably posed a health risk to the men who originally installed the cable wire, continues to claim victims of asbestos exposure to this very day.

The tiny fibres contaminated lunchtime sandwiches

In a recent case, a former telecommunications engineer was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma – cancer of the stomach linings – which is claimed to be the result of working alongside cable layers who regularly drilled through walls containing asbestos. The retired engineer, says the asbestos dust released into the air would not only settle on his work clothes but also believes the tiny fibres contaminated his lunchtime sandwiches and snacks. Mesothelioma of the stomach membrane is extremely rare compared to asbestos-related cancer of the lung linings.

The engineer, now in his mid 60s, was totally shocked when doctors confirmed that he was suffering with mesothelioma. His statement says that he would “casually” brush off any asbestos-containing dust that fell on his clothes while eating his sandwiches, adding that he was “never warned” that he was working in an area containing asbestos.

Employers failed to supply any health information, protective equipment or clothing

Tens of thousands of men were exposed to asbestos while employed in engineering, construction and manufacturing during much of the last century. Yet, the lack of asbestos awareness to the life-threatening risk has been almost universal in victim statements. Far too many employers failed to supply any health information, protective equipment or clothing, despite increasing medical evidence of asbestosis disease and the introduction of regulations to control exposure at the end of the 1960s.

Following the men who were originally exposed to asbestos during the mining, processing and production of textiles and construction/building materials, those involved in installing asbestos insulation during peak industrial use from the 1940s until the early 1980s, such as shipbuilders, foundry, railway / auto assembly workers and maintenance men were identified as a “Second Wave”. In the years following the mid 1980s ban on the most toxic brown and blue asbestos types and the final ban of white asbestos in 1999, the problem of exposure for workers in certain industries has not reduced.

20 tradesmen lose their lives every week to mesothelioma

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) highlight building industry contractors, such as carpenters, electricians and plumbers who continue to be at most risk of occupational asbestos exposure and recently estimated that an average of 20 tradesmen lose their lives every week to mesothelioma or suffer with asbestos-related diseases. HSE have also suggested that 90,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in Britain between 1970 and 2050 will include around 15,000 employed in the building industry.

Included in the high risk categories are telephone engineers and cable layers who may have also drilled into asbestos materials hidden in property walls, floors and ceilings during installation or repairs to lines at any time during their working lives. There is further concern that installers of the new fibre optic cable are already the next group of workers to be classified as potential asbestos exposure victims.

Installing new pipes made with asbestos until the early 1980s

A fibre cable installer in the US, aged just 39, was diagnosed with the fatal incurable cancer, which was claimed to be the result of exposure while replacing copper cable in 2003 and 2004. Once again, it is alleged that neither the victim nor his team were ever told that the cable-carrying pipes were made from asbestos. During the investigation, the cable company revealed that they were still installing new pipes made with asbestos until the early 1980s.

Unfortunately, the potential risks of asbestos exposure when any type of work takes place in a property are set to continue. It has been estimated that there could be at least half a million properties, both private and public, still containing the hazardous insulation hidden within the fabric of the building. Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12, it is a legal requirement for an authorised survey/risk assessment to be carried out before any works are begun.