Tyneside and Sunderland are once again highlighted as recording among the highest numbers of men and woman who have lost their lives to mesothelioma as a result of historic exposure to asbestos. Latest figures are also up on previous totals, which may be seen as underlining forecasts for asbestos-related fatalities not declining until 2050.

Former shipbuilding regions in the north of England, Scotland and the South East coast have long been known as key asbestosis ‘hotspots’. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, around 170,000 tons of asbestos was imported each year. The mineral fibres were widely used as an inexpensive anti corrosion and heat resistant insulator in the many shipyards and related industrial manufacturers concentrated in the two regions.

Today, our asbestos awareness to the fatal long term health risks of breathing in the fibre dust particles could not be further from the working practices experienced throughout much of the 20th century. Thousands of shipbuilders and dockyard workers were one of the most vulnerable groups of workers, particularly engine and electrical fitters, shipwrights, joiners, boiler and asbestos pipe lagging installers.

Universal material to protect a vessel’s components against corrosion

Up until the late 1970s and early 1980s, over 300 types of insulation products were manufactured with asbestos fibres and widely used by shipyard workers to line a ship’s boiler, bulkhead and exhaust systems. Asbestos was also a universal material to protect a vessel’s components against corrosion including, electrical fixtures, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves hot steam pipes, hot water and fuel lines, turbines, compressors and condensers.

It was a practice to directly handle the asbestos fibres by hand, for example, when mixing in a bucket to form a thick paste for “lagging” the hot water pipes. However, victim statements regularly refer to the widespread absence of any breathing mask or personal protection equipment.

The figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that in North Tyneside, there were 491 male mesothelioma deaths compared to 411 four years earlier, while South Tyneside reported 364 deaths, up from 321 deaths. However, there was also a high number of female mesothelioma fatalities in areas such as Sunderland, Barrow-in-Furness, Leeds and Blackburn.

Former shipyard recorded highest mortality rate

In just one ten year period (up to 2011), mortality rates had increased by 20 per cent in men and 40 per cent in women. One in three male deaths and one in five female deaths are from the worst former asbestos “hotspots” of the north of England. One particular example is Barrow-in-Furness in the north west. The region, once famous for the Vickers shipyard amongst other vessel builders, recorded the highest mortality rate with 241 male deaths from mesothelioma – more than two and a half times the rate of deaths than the national average.

Over the past two decades of reported figures, HSE reports that nearly all the other shipbuilding regions also show an increase in fatalities on previous figures. Between 2010 and 2014, Wearside was also in the top twenty of regions most affected by the impact of continued mesothelioma death rates. Sunderland scored highly on the national table of mortality as well as recording the second highest female mesothelioma mortality, most often as the result of “secondary” exposure to their husband’s asbestos-contaminated overalls.

Steady trend is projected to continue

While the most toxic brown and blue asbestos were finally banned in the mid 1980s – followed 15 years later by white asbestos – the mesothelioma mortality rate continues to still be high in specific regional areas of the North East and Scotland. One of the key reasons is the period of up to 50 years in which the potential for the cancer to develop lays dormant.

Many victims who would have started their apprenticeship at the dockyards in their teens or early twenties may only be diagnosed with asbestosis symptoms after retirement. Coroner’s offices in the north east not infrequently report on mesothelioma or likely asbestos-related deaths of males aged in their mid 70s or 80s.

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) has said that the number of male mesothelioma cases has steadily risen by more than 11 fold between the 1970s and 2011, and by 8 times over for female victims of the fatal disease during the same period. Unfortunately, the trend is projected to continue. More than 2,540 people lost their lives mesothelioma in 2014, according to the most recent HSE figures, while separate research even suggests that the number of mesothelioma deaths could actually reach more than 2,800 every year by 2025.