The problems presented by today’s complex communications may appear to bear no relation to the age of the first transatlantic cables in the mid 19th century, which were known to be insulated with tarred hemp and rubber. During much of the 20th century, however, potentially mil- lions of miles of coaxial copper cable laid across Britain, could have been lined with asbestos mineral fibres. In the 21st century, former electrical and telephone engineers continue to lose their lives to mesothelioma as a result of their exposure to the deadly asbestos insulation. 

Almost exactly one year ago, the government announced that 90 per cent of UK premises were now able to be connected to “superfast broadband”. It followed a statement by BT’s Openreach that optic fibre cable, capable of delivering ‘up to’ 40-80Mbps, was now “within reach” of 25 million homes and businesses. 

There’s no doubt that many individuals and communities living in particular areas will claim that they are still not experiencing the superfast speeds. While the intention is to completely replace copper cables with fibre optic cable, there is still an issue over whether lines longer than 350 metres will continue to just deliver significantly slower speeds. It seems likely that the cables, some of which are said to date back more than a century and a half, may not be replaced for quite some time yet. 

10-15 per cent asbestos fibres added to industrial products 

Britain’s widespread use of asbestos as an anti-corrosive, fireproof insulator reached peak levels during the 1960s and 70s, affecting all types of workplaces, from shipbuilding, railway and vehicle assembly to the construction and energy industries. Between 10 – 15 per cent of asbestos fibres was added to industrial products, including underground drainage /sewer pipes, and electrical and telephone-line conduits. Also within telecommunications, asbestos was used in both higher voltage AC or DC electrical wiring as well as in low voltage wiring products, such as telephone cabling. 

Despite increasing medical evidence of mineral fibres as a cause of asbestosis disease and the introduction of regulations to control exposure at the end of the 1960s, there was a prevailing lack of asbestos awareness about the potential health dangers. Countless thousands of victims were exposed every day to the deadly fibre materials. Decades later, former workers continue to receive the devastating news that their loss of weight, breathlessness or chest pains are con- firmed symptoms of asbestos-related lung cancer. 

One group of men who are still being diagnosed with the fatal disease are former telecommunications engineers. 

Telephone cables now known to contain blue “crocidolite” asbestos 

Most recently, a former telecommunications installer died at the age of 80 diagnosed with the incurable cancer of the lungs. Employed during the 1960s and 70s as a wire-cutter and installer, the deceased was involved in laying telephone cables, now known to contain blue “crocidolite” asbestos. Often a job would also require the manual cutting and installing of the cables into ducts, which were later also filled with asbestos. Both blue and brown asbestos were the first to be banned in the mid 1980s as the most dangerous “needle’ fibre types. 

Asbestos was also used as protection for an extensive number of electrical components in heating systems, as well as lining air ducts and extrusions. Electrical engineers would be directly exposed and especially if they needed to disturb the linings in any way. 

As is so often reported, the company employers neglected to issue any protective equipment or provide safety information to their workforce. The widow of the deceased engineer recalls that her late husband had been advised by his union at the time for exposure to asbestos to be listed on his medical records. However, the wife is now asking for former work colleagues to help with providing their accounts of working conditions at the time to present as evidence in an on-going asbestosis claim. 

Two layers of asbestos between copper foil 

In another case involving a former telecommunications engineer diagnosed with mesothelioma, it was claimed that the disease was the result of years working alongside cable layers who regularly drilled through walls containing asbestos. More recently, a former telephone engineer during the 1960s and 70s was diagnosed with pleural thickening, thought to have been caused by stripping back the outer linings of electric cable, which included two layers of asbestos between copper foil and colour-coded silk wiring. Asbestos fibre dust particles would be released into the surrounding atmosphere whenever a layer was pulled back from the cables. 

More than 1.3 million people, mostly construction and related trade workers, such as electrical engineers are still likely to still come into occupational contact with asbestos every day, according to the Health and Safety Executive.