How many thousands of miles of hot water pipes were lagged with asbestos in British factories, foundries, mills, production plants and engineering works before the first mid 1980s ban? And how many thousands of men breathed in the tiny fibre dust particles every day for years without realising that mesothelioma cancer awaited them decades later?

Mesothelioma is often regularly diagnosed in maintenance engineers who were employed in the 1950s, 60s and 70s to replace the asbestos insulation, which lined large heating boilers or apply wet asbestos plaster lagging by hand to hot water pipework. In the latest cases, men aged in their mid 60s have become the latest victims of asbestos-related diseases despite having never directly handled the deadly insulation. They were simply working in the same space where asbestos debris had fallen to the floor and the airborne fibre dust hung in the atmosphere.

The clear link to lung related disease saw asbestos use starting to decline from the late 1970s. But countless numbers of men had never received any health information or even issued with a breathing mask or any other personal protection from their employers. There was still a widespread lack of asbestos awareness to the long term health damage, which first appears up to 40 or 50 years later in the early asbestosis symptoms of breathlessness and constant coughing.

Asbestos lagging would simply fall away from the pipes

A 65-year old machine operator who recently lost his life to mesothelioma just three months after diagnosis is thought to have been exposed to asbestos fibre dust while working at a fur factory during the 1960s and 1970s. The building was also covered by a corrugated asbestos roof, and asbestos lagged steam pipes ran across all floors and sections throughout the premises where the victim regularly worked. One witness who was employed at the same company said that the factory was “old and poorly maintained”. However, the family are calling upon other former work colleagues to provide a statement of working conditions to help with their mesothelioma claim.

The second victim was aged 67 when diagnosed with asbestos-related pleural plaques – a fibrous thickening of the membrane tissue surrounding the lung. Also a machine operator,  he was employed in his early twenties at a Hertfordshire paper mill between 1969 and 1976, working next to asbestos lagged pipework that ran throughout the huge mill, including within the cutting house itself.

Once again a familiar pattern emerges from the retired machine operator’s recollection of his immediate working environment. The pipework lagging was also “old and in a poor state”. Despite of regular maintenance and repair work, the asbestos lagging would simply fall away from the pipes and be crushed underfoot or driven over by forklift trucks. Whilst operating the cutting machines, the constant application of the brakes would also release asbestos fibre dust into the air.

However, former work colleagues who worked at the mill before its closure in December 1980 are being asked to come forward to help identify exactly where and when exposure to asbestos occurred. Despite the former machine operator suffering crippling pains in his chest and severe breathlessness, in an asbestos claim, the presence of pleural plaques can be seen by the courts as “benign” and not automatically a life threatening condition.

Simply happened to work where asbestos was used to line hot water pipes

Undeniably, the terrible legacy of asbestos exposure in its most common forms of mesothelioma or pleural plaques, continues to this day. However, over the passage of time, the number of cases resulting from the production and installation of asbestos-containing insulation materials and products in industries, such as shipbuilding, property construction and vehicle assembly during the 1950s and 60s have slowly declined. Increasingly, cases of mesothelioma are being diagnosed in men (or women) who simply happened to work on factory floors where asbestos insulation was commonly used to line hot water steam pipes running throughout the premises. The buildings are also likely to have been constructed with asbestos cement roofing or interior wallboard.

A workforce could still be working up until the 1980s or even 90s in environments where asbestos was most probably present. It was not unusual for individuals to potentially be at risk of exposure throughout their working lives at one, two or more different workplaces despite changing employment or occupations.

The full extent of the exposures may never be known. However, around 85 per cent of all male mesotheliomas can be traced to asbestos exposures, which occurred in occupational settings, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). More than 500 male and female annual deaths from mesothelioma were recorded in the early 1980s, double the number from a decade earlier. By the early 1990s, the toll was more than 1000 deaths per year, doubling again to above 2000 by the end of the following decade.

In June 2014, the HSE reported that the number of mesothelioma deaths had increased by nearly 11 per cent in just one year to more than 2,500 in 2012, and is expected to remain at the same level until at least 2050.