The shock news that a father or mother’s prolonged breathing problems is diagnosed as mesothelioma or asbestosis disease can be the start of a family’s determined journey to find answers. Especially in cases where there is no knowledge of any contact with asbestos – the so-called “mystery” exposures.

The latest reported case involves a HGV driver who suddenly fell ill with a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma and quickly succumbed to the fatal disease. The son is calling upon former colleagues of his father to help with the family’s mesothelioma claim by giving their accounts of working conditions at the time that the deceased was employed at various transportation companies in the 1960s and 70s.

Men and women not employed in asbestos-related occupations

Exposure to the deadly fibre insulation in the workplace continues to account for most of deaths from mesothelioma – the incurable cancer of the lung linings. Latest Health & Safety Executive figures reveal that lives tragically cut short by the fatal disease had risen to more than 2,540 in 2015 – adding to our asbestos awareness of the human tragedy that still continues in the UK.

The first asbestos ban (brown and blue fibre types) was introduced in the mid-1980s but use of asbestos products had already begun to decline from the late 1970s in heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, textile manufacturing, building construction, railway and vehicle assembly. Research consistently shows that more than 80 per cent of all mesothelioma deaths occur 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.

However, it soon became clear that men and women not employed in asbestos-related occupations were also being diagnosed with asbestos-related conditions. Occupational or environmental exposures continued throughout the 1980s and 90s, and beyond. In an overwhelming number of cases, it was found that victims suffering from asbestos-related disease were regularly exposed to the airborne fibre 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.

Background mesothelioma risk

Another worrying trend is the rise in the average, background mesothelioma risk, as a result of a non-identifiable exposure that could have occurred in the workplace during the years of peak asbestos use in the UK.

In the present tragic case of asbestos exposure – yet to be identified, the son recounts that from the late 1960s his father had worked for nearly ten years as a HGV driver at three transport firms. He would also help with the loading and unloading of goods. Were some of the items regularly transported asbestos-products or asbestos-containing materials? Was the transportation itself the source of the exposure?

Vehicle brake pads and other friction products

Although asbestos materials were largely phased out after the arrival of front-wheel drive vehicles in the 1980s, the mineral fibre had been used in vehicle brake pads and other friction products ever since cylinder brake linings were first developed in the early 1900s. Up to 35 per cent of a brake lining product could contain asbestos fibres used to supply structural reinforcement and heat resistance.

Continual abrasion releases microscopic asbestos fibres into the atmosphere and large amounts of asbestos material is trapped inside the brake housing or clutch space, which is then released when replacement or repair work is carried out.

No knowledge that asbestos existed in the building where they worked

A further way that exposure in the workplace continued for decades after white asbestos was finally banned right at the end of the 1990s, was its presence in the building itself, from the visible lagging that lined the pipework to being hidden behind floors, ceilings and walls – even the roofing.

During the middle decades of the 20th century, non-occupational employees often had little or no knowledge that asbestos existed in the building where they worked, or if they did handle the materials, received no personal protection or safety warnings from employers. A court will often find an employer negligent of his duty of care to prevent or minimise the risk of injury/damage to their employees. However, it normally takes around 30-40 years from the initial period of exposure for asbestosis symptoms to appear.

In cases of mesothelioma caused by ‘mystery’ workplace exposures, a spouse or family member, together with their asbestosis lawyer is left to collect all the witness evidence they can. Despite the passage of time, the son of the HGV driver is “confident” that there are former work colleagues or others who will be able to supply the vital information needed to help succeed in bring his case to court.