Action Mesothelioma Day was ten years old on Friday 1st July. Each year since 2006, on the first Friday of July, the victims of asbestos exposure were remembered in asbestos awareness raising events held around the country. Twelve asbestos victim support groups, from Wallasey and Manchester in the north of England to London and Portsmouth in the south use the day to highlight the continuing need for action to overcome the legacy of Britain’s widespread industrial use of asbestos during the 20th century.

Industrial use of asbestos as insulation declined following the ban on the highly toxic blue and brown fibres in the mid 1980s and then white asbestos 15 years later. Direct occupational exposure may have reduced but the number of victims living with asbestos disease or losing their life to mesothelioma continues into the 21st century.

An estimated 5,400 people in the UK are living with mesothelioma, according to recent research by the British Lung Foundation. Of more than 2,400 people who died from the fatal cancer of the lung linings, around 1 in seven (14 per cent) were aged 15 to 64, while nearly 2,100 were aged 65 and above. Latest available figures indicate that more than half of all occupational cancer deaths were caused by exposure to asbestos (Annual Report 2013/14, Health and Safety Executive – HSE). In 2015, the HSE revised up their estimated death rate caused by asbestosis diseases from 4,000 to 5,000 deaths per year.

Release of white doves

Many of the Action day commemorations were once again be marked by the release of white doves as a poignant symbol of the lives still being lost to the incurable cancer. Victim support groups from Cheshire and Merseyside linked up once more to call for a global ban on asbestos, and better treatment and care for mesothelioma patients.

As in previous years, the day brought together many organisations and individual speakers from the medical, legal and caring professions. Key speakers this year on Merseyside comprised a Senior Mesothelioma Specialist, an Occupational Physician and a Consultant Respiratory Physician. Local civic dignitaries in attendance included the Deputy Mayor and Mayoress of Halton. The doves, released to raise money for mesothelioma research were sponsored in honour of a loved one, and dedications were viewed on a screen throughout the event.

The day also provided an important opportunity to draw public and media attention to the Action Mesothelioma Charter, which focuses on three key areas – mesothelioma patients, the government and employers.

Rights of mesothelioma patients

According to the Charter, the rights of mesothelioma patients and their families should include the best possible treatments, up-to-date advice on benefits, and legal advice and guidance from solicitors experienced in mesothelioma claims. The government is urged to make mesothelioma a national priority, and to fund good quality research aimed at improving diagnosis, treatment and outcomes for patients.

Many victims and their families have been dismayed to hear of the funding cuts in 2014 /15, which reduced the mesothelioma research levy to 2.2 per cent from the 3 per cent originally agreed between insurers and government MPs at the start of the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme (DMPS) in July 2014. DMPS was set up to help around 3,500 victims of asbestos-related mesothelioma cancer who, every year, are unable to trace their original employer or insurer.

In December 2015, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that they would finally change their rules to allow veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos while they were on military service to have the choice of a lump sum payment or a regular, smaller pension. However, their change of heart had a sting in the tail. The new rule, which came into effect from 11th April 2016 does not apply to those veterans who were diagnosed on or after 16 December 2015.

Enforcement of current regulations to safeguard all employees

Employers are also called upon to provide a safe working environment with all necessary protection equipment and to ensure enforcement of current regulations to safeguard all employees. The charter also asks for the location of all asbestos to be identified at a company premises and for employers to organise safe removal where practical or necessary before work proceeds.

Time and time again, we hear of building firms failing to carry out the necessary procedures as required under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2102 (CAR 2012). In a number of cases, the vital information obtained from a pre-works asbestos survey is not always passed on by private or local authority landlords to building / maintenance contractors.

Worse still, the pressure to complete building works on time and on budget can lead to corners being cut. Waste asbestos material may simply be removed without any regard to safety compliance or protection against airborne dust fibres. An average of 20 tradesmen lose their lives every week to asbestos-related illnesses, according to the HSE. Of a total of 90,000 cases of mesothelioma expected in Britain by 2050, around 15,000 will include those employed in the building industry.

The annual Action Mesothelioma Day serves as a crucial reminder that the deadly risks from asbestos exposure and the continuing loss of life to mesothelioma and asbestos-related cancer is still very much with us today.

Click here for the full list of Action Mesothelioma Day events held around the UK.