Discovering that a childhood exposure to asbestos is likely to be the cause of a diagnosed mesothelioma decades later is still a devastating legacy left to the victims and their families as a result of Britain’s historic use of the deadly fibres. Recently, a father of two was only in his late forties when he heard the shock news from his doctor.

The majority of victims are known to be usually aged in their 70s and above. They were exposed in one or more workplaces where asbestos was known to have been used in production or installed as insulation throughout the premises.  The number of male workers of the generation who were exposed by directly handling asbestos materials in heavy industry occupations gradually reduces over time. However, the incidence of mesothelioma being diagnosed in younger age groups, typically in their 60s or even 50s appears to be on the rise.

In the current case, the victim is a medical researcher who was never occupationally in contact with asbestos. However, he believes that exposure may have occurred during his childhood in the 1970s and 80s – the peak period of industrial asbestos use in the UK. He recalls broken up asbestos near his home but also suspects being exposed while at school.

Greater susceptibility if exposed early in life

Research shows increasing evidence that there is greater susceptibility to developing an asbestosis disease if exposed to the fibre dust early in life. Medical data had found that the highest incidence of cancer affecting the linings of the lungs was among victims under the age of 20 when first exposed to asbestos. The most common causes of non-occupational contact with asbestos in those aged under 20 are usually found to be “environmental exposures”, which occur because they lived close to asbestos-using factories or worked inside buildings constructed with asbestos insulation/fireproofing materials, most notably, in schools and nurseries.

In 2015, studies into local authority schools found that nearly 9 in 10 contained asbestos. More than three quarters of schools across the UK were also found to still contain significant amounts of asbestos, which are often improperly managed. Between 200 and 300 people are estimated could die every year of mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure as children at school.

The terminally ill researcher who increasingly suffers from debilitating breathlessness – one of the early asbestosis symptoms – is calling upon anyone who may have information about the presence of asbestos in his local area, especially in the local schools, to get in touch.

Likely to be caused by “environmental” asbestos exposure

Despite the growing asbestos awareness of the long term fatal health risks, it was only in the mid-1980s that the most toxic blue and brown asbestos types were banned in the UK. Imports of white asbestos were also eventually prohibited 15 years later. Between 1940 and the final import ban, more than five million tons had been used in British industry as a key insulation and fireproofing product in most areas of building, manufacturing and engineering.

Research by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) indicates that there was a ‘lifetime’ risk of 1 per 1,000 of contracting an asbestos-related disease as the result of an ‘environmental’ exposure. Around 100 female and 100 male cases of mesothelioma confirmed each year are likely to be caused either by “environmental” asbestos exposure, or more worryingly, by “unsuspected occasional or ambient exposure in occupational settings” initially classified as “low risk.” In the latter case, low risk tends to refer to buildings, such as schools, hospitals or other public (or private) premises constructed with asbestos-containing materials, which are “encapsulated” and managed under strict regulations.

A child living longer does allow mesothelioma to develop

In June 2013, a Government advisory Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC), published a two year study into whether children are more vulnerable because they live longer, which allows mesothelioma tumour cells time to develop, or if children are more vulnerable because of their physical immaturity. The COC unanimously concluded that a child living longer does allow mesothelioma to develop, estimating that “the lifetime risk … is around 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25 and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.”

A recent report published by an international group of 180 scientists from 35 countries, reveals that nearly 45 per cent of pleural (lung lining) mesothelioma cases, and more than 50 per cent of peritoneal (stomach) mesothelioma cases, were diagnosed at least 40 years after a first exposure. Even after 50 years, more than 13 per cent of pleural cases and 23 per cent of peritoneal cases were still being recorded. It was also found that the rate and risk of pleural mesothelioma actually increased for 45 years following a first exposure.

In February 2018, a study into “Global Trends in Mortality from Malignant Mesothelioma” reveals that the UK has the highest number of mesothelioma deaths per head of the population despite the decline of asbestos use towards the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s.

More than 2,500 people now lose their lives to mesothelioma every year – up by more than 10 per cent since 2011 – according to the latest available figures from Health & Safety Executive (HSE) Annual Report, 2014. HSE have also found that an increase in the average “background mesothelioma risk” is due to exposure which 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.