Historical exposure to asbestos in the workplace continues to account for a significant number of deaths from incurable mesothelioma or asbestos related lung cancer. Around 13,000 annual deaths from occupational lung disease and cancer are estimated to have been caused by past exposure, primarily to chemicals and dusts at work, which includes mesothelioma fatalities. More than half of the 8,000 work-related cancer deaths recorded each year are caused by past exposures to asbestos, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

While many cases can be confidently linked to regular exposures that occurred in the industrial workplace, at home or in the local environment, there can also be many which present a total mystery as to how, where and when exposure to asbestos took place. When a doctor confirms the diagnosis, the news may not only be a complete shock to a victim and their family, it can also be the start of a determined journey to find answers.

In one recent tragic case, the son of a former toolmaker who died aged 82 only three months after he was diagnosed with the fatal cancer, has just begun the task of seeking justice and to discover the source of his father’s ultimately, fatal exposure to asbestos.

Regularly exposed to airborne asbestos dust caused by insulation materials

More than three quarters of workers who eventually fell victim to mesothelioma or other asbestosis diseases were exposed to the fibres widely used in producing insulation materials for traditional heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, building construction, railway and vehicle assembly. An exceptionally long period of up to 30 or 40 years or more generally elapses before the first asbestosis symptoms appear, which often means that mesothelioma deaths are usually among those aged 75 and above.

As asbestos awareness to the long term health dangers became better known, the use of the fibres began to decline from the late 1970s, and the first ban introduced in the mid 1980s. However, it also became increasingly clear that men and women not employed in asbestos-related occupations were also being diagnosed with asbestos-related conditions.

It was found that they were regularly exposed to airborne asbestos dust caused by insulation materials used in the construction of the buildings in which they worked, from factories and commercial premises to schools, hospitals and council offices. Today, the HSE and professional construction industry say that any building in the UK constructed up to 2000, just after white asbestos was banned from use in late 1999, may contain asbestos materials.

The son of the former toolmaker has made an appeal for help with recalling workplace conditions at the time. He is calling for  anyone who may have also worked at the four factories in North East England where his father was employed from the late 1940s through to his retirement in 2001.

Asbestos hotspot for fatal asbestos related disease

The peak period of Britain’s industrial asbestos use, which began in the post WW2 reconstruction years of the 1950s, occurred in the 1960s and 70s when around 170,000 tons was annually imported. Even during the 1980s and 90s, the average amount imported each year over the two decades was 27,500 tons.

The concentration of shipyards, foundries, engineering works and industrial manufacturing plants in the North East which used asbestos has left the region a notorious hotspot for fatal asbestos related disease. One in three male mesothelioma deaths and one in five female deaths occur in the north of England, according to recent HSE figures. However, the North East Lincolnshire coroner’s office recently issued a statement saying 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.

Time and time again, victim statements recount that they simply received no protective equipment or safety information from employers at their workplace. Where there was no known presence of asbestos, it could mean that a death, which may have actually been caused by mesothelioma may not be identified unless a further investigation is requested by a coroner.

Rise in the average “background mesothelioma risk”

A recent study by a team of researchers from the University of Milan into ‘mystery’ mesothelioma cases found that of a total of 364 malignant mesothelioma patients, exposure to asbestos was confirmed in fifteen per cent of victims, and “possible occupational exposure” identified in almost 50 per cent of patients.

In the UK, the number of people who lost their lives to a fatal injury in the workplace has remained at near the same level, having risen slightly from 142 in 2014/2015 to 144 in 2015/2016, according to latest available HSE figures. The number of mesothelioma deaths also suggests that historical asbestos exposure continues to claim a consistently high number of lives.

The number of deaths from the incurable cancer is, for the third year running, over 2,500, and the trend looks likely to continue until at least 2030. Equally worryingly is a rise in the average “background mesothelioma risk” among both older women (and men), which is due to exposure that is not readily identifiable but could have occurred in “any setting” during peak asbestos use in the UK between the 1950s to the 1970s / 80s.

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.