Since the use of asbestos fibres in making insulation products began to decline in the UK from the late 1970s and the first ban introduced in 1985, death from mesothelioma has mainly occurred among men aged 75 and above. However, in recent years, an increasing number of men (and women) have fallen victim to asbestos related diseases, aged just in their 50s and 60s. While many are teachers who were exposed to asbestos at their school, an early death from fatal mesothelioma cancer may also often come to a tradesman who came into contact with the deadly fibres,

In a recent case, a former plumber from the Medway area became a victim of mesothelioma, the incurable cancer of the lung linings, aged just 62. Tragically, the victim had led an active life, which including swimming and cycling sometimes up to 30 miles a day, and playing rugby for over 20 years. He was also ran seven marathons including London, New York and Paris, and often competed in triathlons.

Exposure occurred during teenage years as an apprentice

It was during his last triathlon in June 2014, in which the former plumber experienced one of the known asbestosis symptoms of breathlessness that he decided to see his GP. Not surprisingly, it came as a total shock when a diagnosis of mesothelioma was returned. The plumber was sure that he had never worked with asbestos during his entire 30 years in the industry.

However, he realised that exposure to the deadly fibre insulation must have occurred even earlier, during his teenage years when he was an apprentice in the 1970s. At this time, around 150,000 tons of asbestos was imported into Britain every year to be made into insulation products commonly used in industries, such as building construction. While the link to asbestosis diseases had been known about since at least the 1920s, there was a widespread lack of health information or protection made available to men who worked every day with asbestos materials.

End came sooner than expected

The potential risk of  inhaled asbestos fibres to turn healthy cells cancerous can lay dormant for up to 50 years or more from the time when the exposures occurred. Almost always, the cancer would have spread to a late stage when the first outward signs, such as breathlessness or constant coughing starts. Often life expectancy is no more than 6 to 12 months.

In this case, the former plumber was initially given six or seven years left to live. But despite courses of treatment and taking part in drugs trials, the end came sooner than expected, just two years later.

Plumbers are one of the key trade skills known to be at high risk of potential exposure to asbestos during their working lives. A survey commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that it is plumbers and heating engineers, in particular, who come into contact with asbestos more frequently than nearly all other tradesman – an average of 140 times per year, or nearly three times a week.

Highest incidence of malignant pleural mesothelioma

While the 62 year old victim was convinced that he had not come into contact with asbestos during his adult years, research continues to find evidence that exposure to asbestos early in life increases the chances of developing mesothelioma or asbestos-related disease. Analysis of medical data indicates that the highest incidence of malignant pleural mesothelioma was among victims under the age of 20 when first exposed to the fibre dust.

The greater health risks to children, teen and young adults continues to be a focus of mesothelioma research.
In June 2013, a Government advisory Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC), published a two year study into whether children are more vulnerable because they live longer , which could allow mesothelioma tumour cells time to develop or if children are more vulnerable because of their physical immaturity.

Historical asbestos ‘hotspot’

The COC said there was “unanimous agreement” over their conclusion that a child living longer does allow mesothlioma to develop, estimating that “the lifetime risk … is around 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25 and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.”

The former plumber had also lived in the historical asbestos ‘hotspot’ of Medway, Kent, long known for recording one of the highest mesothelioma fatality rates, nationwide. Between 2006 and 2012, just over 100 deaths from the deadly disease were recorded in the towns of Strood, Chatham, Gillingham, and Rainham, and in Rochester where the plumber had been a resident.

Research UK has also previously found that plumbers and electricians generally have a one in 50 risk of developing an asbestos-related condition.