Non-occupational exposure to asbestos during the 1950s, 60s and 70s is now reported as regularly as traditional contact with the deadly fibre dust. The most recent example is of a former accountant, who lost his life to asbestos-related mesothelioma cancer of the lung linings.

In July 1985, the first UK ban on the most toxic types of asbestos fibres (blue and brown) was introduced. Since that time, asbestos awareness to the long term health dangers of working with the insulation materials has become well-known.

Today, many more people are likely to have heard of the lack of personal protection and safety information involving asbestos exposure, which often existed in the heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, manufacturing, construction, vehicle and railway assembly. More than 8 in ten of all mesothelioma deaths occurred amongst generations of men who worked with asbestos in traditional British industries during the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Linked with an “industrial disease”

As traditional industries declined, so-called white collar victims of asbestosis disease have increasingly come to light, from school teachers and hospital staff to retail assistants and office workers. However, it can also be the case that even when mesothelioma is strongly suspected, a post mortem report will record that the cause of death was linked with an “industrial disease” alongside one or more known health conditions suffered by the deceased.

The inquest into the death of the retired accountant, aged 85, concluded that there was evidence to “persuade” the coroner that exposure to asbestos had occurred when the deceased was employed at a Lancashire glass manufacturing firm in the early 1960s. The accountant worked in an office, not in the main factory, but it’s believed that contact with asbestos fibres was the result of exposure to insulation wrapped around furnace heating ducts or the pipework system.

The use of asbestos fibres mixed with cement for “lagging” hot water pipes was widespread throughout many different types of industrial, commercial and public buildings. In many cases, it is the service / maintenance men whose task it was to regularly repair or replace the asbestos insulation who frequently receive the devastating news of an unexpected diagnosis of mesothelioma many years after retirement. Between 15 and 50 years will pass from the original period of exposure before the first mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms appear.

Connection with an early occupational exposure

As a result of the exceptionally long period taken by the disease to emerge, a coroner may not make the connection with an early occupational exposure to asbestos and only record the final employment of the deceased on a death certificate. It has also been the case, that a former employer would try to dispute their level of contribution to an employee’s subsequent mesothelioma if the alleged exposure was many decades earlier. Today, an earlier settlement in a mesothelioma claim is more likely to be reached than in previous years.

Nevertheless, it can often be left to the widow, close family and their asbestosis lawyers to try and piece together the likely sources of exposure over an entire working lifetime. In most cases, a desperate appeal goes out to former co-workers to provide a statement of conditions in a former workplace.

The rise in non-occupational fatalities caused by exposure to asbestos has become an increasing cause for concern, and not just in the well-known locations of school premises, hospital wards and council properties. The latest available figures from the Department of Works and Pensions, based on the deaths of those aged 16 – 74 between 2002 and 2010, highlight the many other sectors where “white collar” workers are employed.

White collar fatalities

Of more than 9,030 registered mesothelioma male deaths during the 8-year study period, 87 were marketing & sales managers, 52 were civil service administrative officers & assistants and 34 were accounts & wages clerks or book-keepers. Other non-asbestos occupational workers include 69 shopkeepers & wholesale/retail dealers. Other occupations where more than a minimum of 20 deaths from mesothelioma were recorded include, sales & retail assistants, care assistants & home carers.

The wholesale use of asbestos insulation in just about every type of building across Britain, whether industrial, commercial or residential,  has become increasingly clear as the years pass and the innocent victims of non-occupational exposure continue to be recorded.

One report based on data collected from the National Cancer Intelligence Network suggest that cancers, such as mesothelioma are now responsible for more than half of all cancer fatalities in Britain today. Despite malignant pleural mesothelioma accounting for just one per cent of all cancers, the increase by more than 50 per cent of 8,000 cancer deaths believed to be related to asbestos exposure continues the pattern caused by occupational cancer in England and Wales, each year.

The last available number for mesothelioma deaths show an increase by around 11 per cent from 2,291 in 2011 to 2,538 in 2013, and more than 200 deaths were caused by asbestosis (Health and Safety Executive, Annual Report 2014/15).