Are asbestos victims getting younger? The concern is being raised as cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in men and women below the age of 75 appear to be more frequently reported. In a number of cases, over the last 50 years at least, the age of the victim was more likely to be in their 50s or 60s. A diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease in a younger age group, while unexpected and less frequent, does occur. In one recent case, a father of two lost his life to the fatal cancer of the lung linings, aged just 41.

General asbestos awareness may assume that most victims were exposed to the deadly fibres during the peak years of use as insulation and fireproofing between the 1950s and late 1970s. Research has also consistently shown that more than 80 per cent of all mesothelioma deaths occurred amongst men who worked with asbestos during Britain’s peak period of use in the industrial workplace, from the 1940s up until the mid to late 1970s.

Nearly all types of industry, most notably, shipbuilding, construction and vehicle assembly employed thousands of men who directly handled cement products mixed with asbestos fibres. In factories, foundries, engineering works and power plants, armies of maintenance men would also be constantly repairing and replacing asbestos insulation in boilers, pipework and heating ducts.

Many of the men started their working lives as teenage apprentices or in their early twenties. Almost always, it was only after retirement, up to 50 years after the period of exposure that the first asbestosis symptoms would emerge, aged in their 70s or 80s. However, over time, there has been a gradual shift in the age group of asbestos exposure victims who lose their life to mesothelioma.

Younger generation mesothelioma risen by 25 per cent

Figures released by the Office of National Statistic (ONS, 2015) show that between 1968 and 2013, the number of male mesothelioma deaths of those from a younger generation – aged between 50 and 70 – had risen by about 25 per cent and will increase by about a further 20-35 per cent by 2050. The research had discovered that it was those men who began their working lives in the 1970s and 80s who now form part of a high number of mesothelioma deaths, which is expected to continue into the middle of the 21st century.

In the current tragic example, the circumstances of the young family man’s death from an asbestos-related condition also brings into play a further trend – a brief or an unexplained exposure. The deceased had worked his entire working life only in office environments, with no known direct contact with asbestos.

It is perfectly possible that the offices were in buildings containing asbestos insulation. The construction industry repeatedly warn that any property built up to 2000, just after a total UK ban was introduced, may contain asbestos. However, his employment history goes back to his student days, which his widow claims is more likely to be the source of exposure. In the summer of 1995, the victim aged just 20, had briefly worked at a local supermarket and also four months at a metal packaging factory.

‘One-time’ early life exposure can be enough to trigger mesothelioma

Medical research has found that the highest incidence of malignant pleural mesothelioma is among victims under the age of 20 when they were first exposed to asbestos. There is also increasing evidence to show that just a ‘one-time’ exposure early in life can be enough to trigger the later development of mesothelioma. Those who were aged under 30 years old when they worked with asbestos for 10 years or more are estimated to have a one in 17 chance of contracting the fatal cancer.

The most common causes of non-occupational asbestos exposure in those aged under 20 tend to be “environmental exposures”, which occur by living in close proximity to asbestos-using factories or working inside buildings constructed with asbestos insulation/fireproofing materials, most notably, in schools and nurseries.

However, one new study into “mystery” cases, where victims of mesothelioma appeared to have no contact with asbestos, was carried out at the University of Milan. The researchers identified “possible occupational exposure” in almost 50 per cent of patients diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma.

The widow of the deceased office worker – who died just weeks after diagnosis – is totally mystified as to how her husband came into contact with asbestos. As is so often the case, she is working with her asbestosis lawyer to try and find answers by calling upon anyone who worked at the packaging factory to come forward with information that could help with understanding how the exposure may have occurred.