More than 30 years after Britain imposed its first ban on using asbestos, people are still losing their lives to the deadly fibre dust. More alarmingly still, the number of deaths is on the rise, especially in the historic asbestos ‘blackspots’ of northern England.
Fresh reports from the coroner’s office in North East Lincolnshire show that an increasing number of inquests being heard into the deaths of those who were exposed to asbestos.
The number of victims who will lose their lives to the incurable cancer of the lung linings was predicted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to decline by around 2020. Latest available figures from HSE show that the average annual victim count had risen from 2,123 in 2013 to 2,500, and is now thought will top 2,800 every year by 2025, at least.
In 2016, senior British doctors also warned that the number of cases of cancer affecting workers exposed to asbestos before the 1980s has yet to reach its peak.
Cause of death simply recorded as being an “industrial disease”
Causes of industrial disease attributed to mesothelioma or an asbestosis condition are known to have risen in the UK by almost four-fold since the mid 1980s. Despite mesothelioma accounting for just one per cent of all cancers, an increase each year to more than a half of all 8,000 occupational cancer deaths in England and Wales is related to historic asbestos exposure.
The highest mortality rates are consistently found to be in the North East and Scotland. Asbestos was commonly used as an inexpensive anti corrosion and heat resistant insulator in the many shipyards, foundries, engineering works and industrial manufacturing plants concentrated in the two regions.
However, the widespread use of the mineral fibres in building construction and product manufacture could also mean many innocent victims who were unaware of the presence of asbestos in their home or at their workplace. To this day, a coroner’s office may record the cause of death as simply being an “industrial disease”, even when asbestos is suspected of being a contributory factor or mesothelioma cancer was actually responsible. It is also often the case that only the last occupation of the deceased is “routinely recorded” on a death certificate. If the deceased had been previously exposed to asbestos at one or more workplaces over an entire lifetime, then the likely source of exposure could prove difficult to determine.
Victim’s mesothelioma cannot be positively identified
In a recent statement from the North East Lincolnshire coroner’s office, it was concluded that two of the six latest inquests into death from mesothelioma – all aged in their 70s and 80s – were likely to have been caused by an unknown source of asbestos exposure. Four of the cases involved a pipefitter welder at a oil refinery, a ceiling cutter at a building yard, a boiler maintenance fitter and an employee at a rope manufacturer.
In these cases, the likely source of their mesothelioma could be more readily identified as several years of regular exposure to asbestos fibre dust at their workplace. During the peak years of Britain’s industrial use of asbestos between the 1950s and late 1970s, many of these workplaces and job types were known to pose a potential high risk of exposure.
However, in the other two inquests, the explanation for the victim’s mesothelioma cannot be positively determined. One hearing involved a female who worked as a bar lady, a typist and a secretary while the second victim was a former bank manager. In both cases, while there was no evidence to suggest that death was the result of an industrial disease, there may have been an indirect exposure to “background” asbestos. Up until the mid 1980s, asbestos was widely used by the building industry to insulate all types of private, public and commercial premises.
Mesothelioma deaths will continue to rise sharply
Between 2000 and 2011 – mortality rates increased by 20 per cent and 40 per cent in men and women, respectively. One in three male deaths and one in five female deaths are from the worst former asbestos “hotspots” of the north of England, according to recent HSE figures. Barrow-in-Furness in north west England, which is home to the former Vickers shipyard and other shipbuilders, has recorded the highest mortality rate with 421 male deaths from mesothelioma.
North Tyneside was third worst with 411 deaths, while South Tyneside was in fifth place with 321 deaths, up from the 317 deaths reported by the HSE a year earlier.
Nearly all the other shipbuilding regions also showed an increase in fatalities on previous figures. Hartlepool recorded 143 deaths, Sunderland 376 deaths and Stockton 222 deaths, compared to the previous 211. Sunderland also recorded the second highest female mesothelioma mortality rate with the northern areas of Newcastle at 7th, Barrow at eighth and North Tyneside, 17th.
Researchers suggests that men who were aged over 70 accounted for 72 per cent of male mesothelioma deaths in 2013. Over the next four decades, the predicted rise in the number of men above that age who are diagnosed with the fatal cancer, indicates that mesothelioma deaths will continue to rise sharply throughout the same period.
In November 2016, the HSE said that the number of deaths from mesothelioma had jumped by nearly a third. An estimated six people could now die of the fatal malignant cancer every day in England and Wales.