The widespread industrial use of asbestos started to slowly decline in Britain from the late 1970s onwards. However, a total of 90,000 cases of mesothelioma are expected to be diagnosed by 2050. In two recent cases of occupational, asbestos-related cancer, both victims had worked as joiners as far back as the 1950s and 60s when they were just in their teens and early twenties.

Around one in six, or 15,000 cases of victims diagnosed with mesothelioma or an asbestos-related lung cancer would have been employed in the building industry, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). In a ten-year period up to 2000 alone, nearly 600 carpenters and joiners have died from the incurable cancer of the lung linings.

This type of asbestos exposure affecting the skilled building trades is sometimes referred to as “second line” or “second wave”. Despite the mounting medical evidence and the introduction of legislation in asbestos-using factories from as early as the 1930s, the lack of asbestos awareness to the long-term health risks was commonplace throughout British industry during much of the twentieth century.

Breathed in the airborne dust particles every time they sawed and drilled

Many tradesmen were not supplied with any form of personal protection and simply breathed in the airborne dust particles every time they sawed and drilled into building materials manufactured from asbestos fibres. Typical materials included AIB (asbestos insulating board), floor and ceiling tiles, roofing sheets and pre-formed, asbestos cement pipe-cladding.

Among the trade occupations, which were most likely to have direct contact with asbestos were builders, joiners, carpenters, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) installers, plumbers, electricians, plasterers, tilers, roofers, painters and decorators. Many who were exposed during the peak period of asbestos use ( 1940s -1980s) were employed in the North of England and the Midlands.

Continues to claim lives long past retirement age

Occupational exposure to asbestos – often reaching back forty years or more to a claimant’s early working years – continues to claim lives long past retirement age. Today, more than three decades following the first asbestos ban in the mid 1980s, one in 20 tradesmen – mostly carpenters, joiners, electricians and plumbers are still being diagnosed every week with mesothelioma or asbestosis disease as a result of directly working with asbestos insulation materials.

In two recent asbestosis claim cases involving joiners, the families of the victims who both died less than six months after diagnoses, are trying to piece together where and when the exposures occurred. The two men worked with asbestos sheeting every day during the 1960s and 70s while still only in their late teens and early twenties. One of the joiners was just in his mid 60s while the second victim was ten years older when the shock diagnosis was confirmed.

Retired three years prior to receiving the devastating news

In the first case, the victim was described as still very fit and had only retired three years prior to receiving the devastating news. It is known that he worked as a joiner and roofer on many local housing projects, factories, schools and council buildings in the Doncaster area from the early 1960s through to the 1980s. Around 3.5 million tons of asbestos was imported in to Britain during this period – reaching 150,000 tons on average per year at peak – which was extensively used in the construction of all types of public and residential buildings.

Before passing away, the joiner recalled that had worked with asbestos boards and roofing sheets, many of which were the standard asbestos cement, corrugated panels. Circular saws were regularly used to cut the panels ready to be nailed into place and the “clouds of asbestos dust” would fall onto his hands and clothing.

May have been exposed throughout his entire working life

In the second case, the victim who was aged 78 when he died, had previously told his family that during the mid 1950s he made doors filled with asbestos fireproofing. However, he also believed that he may have been exposed to the deadly fibre dust throughout his entire working life. Between 1952 and 1964 he had worked as a carpenter and joiner, for between 2 and 5 years at each of three different building firms in London.

The family were in total shock when they first heard that the cancer could have been caused by exposure to asbestos over 50 years earlier. However, it is known that there can be a period of between 15 to 50 years or even more from first exposure to the eventual appearance of asbestosis symptoms. In most cases a confirmed diagnosis is made when the cancer is at a late stage and has spread to nearby tissues or organs. The victim may only have 2 to 6 months remaining and it will be left to close family to try and find out from former work colleague how the exposures occurred some forty of fifty years earlier.

More than 6 in 10 properties were found to contain asbestos

The import of white asbestos into Britain was finally banned at the end of 1999. However, in 2003 it was estimated that there was still around six million metric tons of asbestos containing materials in half a million properties throughout the UK , which were originally installed by building trade occupations. A striking example was revealed in 2011, when a Freedom of Information request indicated that of around 12,000 council properties in the Stoke On Trent area – more than 6 in 10 – were found to contain asbestos.

The HSE have estimated that of the 1.8 million people who are annually exposed each year to asbestos, many are employed in the building, demolition and waste removal industries. For those who work in industrial / trade occupations for ten or more years, there is a lifetime risk of 1 in 17 of developing mesothelioma or an asbestos-related disease.