Enquiries about asbestos are received almost every day from ordinary men and women, worried about the possibility that a family member may have been exposed to the deadly fibre dust. The sudden appearance of a cough that won’t go away or a difficulty with catching the breath can be the first sign of asbestosis symptoms which, in the early stages, may be indistinguishable from other types of respiratory ailments, such as flu or even a common cold. More than 2,540 people lost their lives to mesothelioma in 2014, according to the most recent figures reported by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Today, of course there is a powerful focus on diet and nutrition, and regular exercise. Combined with advances in preventative medicine, health screenings and specialist treatments, an increasing number of once common conditions that could affect the elderly, especially during the winter months, can be minimised or even avoided altogether. That’s why the appearance of typical symptoms, such as weight loss, fatigue or “tight chests” are more likely to stand out as being unusual for say a normally active 70 or 80 year old. Tragically, in only a matter of months or even weeks, the victim can become almost entirely bedridden before finally losing their life to the incurable cancer.

Working in spaces where the air was “thick with dust

The most acute asbestos awareness to the likelihood of a past exposure can be felt by wives, sons or daughters of men who were once employed in an industry known for using asbestos. The family will often recall stories told by their father of working in boiler rooms or other confined spaces where the air was “thick with dust”. On other occasions, men were required to directly work with installing asbestos insulation boards or fibre and cement mix pipe-lagging. In almost every case, there was no attempt to protect the workforce from the potential health risks of directly working in close quarters to airborne asbestos dust. Victim statements repeatedly say that no breathing masks were ever supplied nor protective clothing. The men were expected to handle or work near asbestos while wearing their own clothes or overalls.

Without any washing facilities on-site, the men would take their contaminated garments home to be cleaned by their wives or daughters. As a result, many women became victims of “secondary exposure” to asbestos and also lost their lives to the fatal disease decades later. Secondary exposure is named, alongside “environmental” exposure, to have caused the deaths of around 1,200 female mesothelioma victims since 2008, and there has been a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970.

Highest mesothelioma rates in the north east and north west of England

Location may also play a crucial role in making family members even more sensitive to the very real possibility that an exposure to asbestos is the underlying cause. The highest mesothelioma mortality rates are consistently found to be in the north east and north west of England – where one in three male deaths and one in five female deaths are from these former asbestos “hotspots” – as well as in Scotland, the Midlands and areas of the south coast. 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 these regions.

Latest HSE figures show that Barrow-in-Furness recorded 241 male deaths from mesothelioma, the highest mortality rate when compared to standard national figures. Other historic shipbuilding areas with consistently high number of mesothelioma deaths are North Tyneside (411 deaths), South Tyneside (321 deaths). All mortalities were up from previous years. Nearly all the other shipbuilding regions also showed an increase on previous figures, including Hartlepool, Sunderland and Stockton. As the former asbestos-using industries went into decline, the number of asbestos exposure victims still continued.

Employees were exposed to fibre dust during renovations

Where the deadly fibre insulation had been originally installed in the fabric of a building decades earlier, an increasing number of cases made non-occupational exposure to asbestos more visible. Today, families can be devastated to find out that a father or mother developed asbestos disease after being innocently exposed at their place of work such as, a school, hospital, library, department store, laundry, laboratory, warehouse or factory. In many cases, the presence of asbestos only came to light when the building was being refurbished. It was sometimes during the renovations that employees were exposed as the fibre dust was released by workmen unaware of the measures needed when handling asbestos insulation to protect against contamination.

Unfortunately, the possibilities for exposure to asbestos during the peak periods of use during the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s were endless as the deadly insulation found its way into almost every type of insulation product. The numbers of victims are expected to continue until 2030 or even beyond, according to different researchers. Tragically, the number of enquiries likely to be received from anxious families who need to know just how and why exposure occurred up to 30 or 40 years earlier are also not expected to reduce any time soon.