Victims of asbestos exposure with pleural plaques have long felt that they have been unfairly dealt with by the courts of England and Wales. For nearly ten years, a long time sufferer of pleural plaques has tirelessly campaigned for asbestos compensation to be reinstated for more than 400 victims diagnosed each year with the asbestosis condition.

Sufferers of mesothelioma, the fatal incurable cancer of the lung linings, have fought to receive fairer treatment by the courts in the settlement of mesothelioma claims. Not every employer will accept responsibility or their proportion of a contributory cause to a former employee’s asbestos-related disease and agree to an early out-of court settlement. Insurers can also often robustly dispute liability for asbestos exposure or when liability for a victim’s mesothelioma would begin.

Distressing setbacks in securing justice

In the meanwhile, other victims of breathing in the deadly fibre dust have also suffered their own distressing setbacks in securing justice and compensation in the courtroom. In October 2007, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) upheld a Law Lords ruling on a Court Of Appeal decision, which stated that despite the existence of pleural plaques clearly showing exposure to asbestos, they are not, in themselves, harmful symptoms and therefore, were no longer grounds for awarding compensation under the civil law.

Ever since that time, an 82 year old Swansea pensioner with pleural plaques has repeatedly called for the ruling to be reversed, including bringing his concerns both to the Welsh Assembly and the House of Commons. Although compensation for his own condition was awarded before the 2007 ruling, in his latest bid to gain justice for others with the condition, the veteran campaigner hopes more than 10,000 people will sign a petition.

Almost always present in patients with asbestosis

Pleural plaques are defined as small, raised areas or tissue, which are usually found on the pleural cavity – the space between a thin membrane – consisting of two single layers, one covering the chest wall, the other lining the lungs.

Around 50 per cent of those who are exposed to asbestos over prolonged periods of time will develop the condition. Unlike other airborne particles, asbestos fibres are small enough to avoid detection and imbed themselves permanently in the pleural tissues, where they cause inflammation and scarring. Even a low level of irregular exposure is known to cause pleural plaques to form and are almost always present in patients with asbestosis and are often present in patients suffering with mesothelioma.

The latest available figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) indicate that the number of cases of pleural plaques remains consistent at around 430 each year. There were 425 new cases of pleural thickening assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) in 2014. In the same year, an estimated 580 new cases of non-malignant pleural disease, primarily caused by asbestos were reported by chest physicians.

Unchanged position in England and Wales

Today, the 2007 judgement continues to be the unchanged position in England and Wales despite a “no-fault” scheme introduced by the Ministry of Justice in August 2010, which lasted for just 12 months. The scheme enabled just a small handful of applications for ‘one-off ‘payments of £5,000 be made to those with pleural plaques who had already begun a legal claim prior to October 2007.

In the summer of 2011, a ruling by the UK Supreme Court did allow those living in Scotland to once again, make a claim for pleural plaques. Just a few weeks later, the Damages (Asbestos Related Conditions) Act was passed in Northern Ireland, which also reversed the House of Lords ruling to allow compensation to be awarded for the condition.

The last time that the House of Commons was called upon to discuss pleural plaques was late in 2012. Thirty MPs joined together to propose a debate to reassess the government’s position on access to compensation for those with pleural plaques and allow sufferers to sue their employers where there is proven negligence.

Risk factor for pleural mesothelioma

A key challenge to making a claim is the determined level of injury and potential future health risk. The presence of pleural plaques has always been viewed as simply an indication of exposure to asbestos at some point in the past, and are in themselves neither harmful nor will cause further illness.

However, previous studies into asbestos-related abnormalities have shown that there is a statistically significant association between mesothelioma and pleural plaques, which would indicate that the presence of pleural plaques as also an independent risk factor for pleural mesothelioma.

The Welsh campaigner hopes that his petition will help persuade the government to look at the 2007 judgement again. No matter if they are considered harmless, a confirmation that asbestos fibres has caused changes in the lung lining tissue – in the form of pleural plaques – can still pose endless health uncertainties and distress for the unfortunate victim,

Click here to add your name to the petition at the Parliament Petitions website.