Asbestos Exposure Is Happening Now

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The Law Of... asbestos exposure awareness

Factory workers, shipyard labourers and navvies – these are the people that we associate with asbestos.

Most of us would dismiss our risk of exposure, having worked in a "dust-free" environment or label it as a problem of the past. But what if we told you that asbestos exposure is very much a 21st century issue?

Did you know you could still be exposed to asbestos? We answer the key questions on the risks of asbestos.

Did you know that while restrictions were introduced in the mid-1980s, there wasn't a blanket ban on asbestos in the UK until 1999? This means that any residential or industrial building built before 2000 could contain asbestos.

There is no known level of exposure that doesn't carry risk and it's probably closer to you than you realise. Everyday activity is known to unsettle asbestos fibres into the atmosphere, such as slamming a door, moving furniture or even cleaning, but are you truly aware of it?

The Scale Of The Problem Is Unique To The UK

Britain has one of the highest rates of Mesothelioma in the world, a terminal form of cancer that's exclusively linked to asbestos. This is due to its wide use by the UK's ship and railroad industries and a late ban of the product.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, 2,500 people die from Mesothelioma in Great Britain each year. It's also estimated that the same number of people die from asbestos-related lung cancers each year too. This is twice the number of people killed on our roads.

The HSE also estimate that the number of asbestos-related deaths will remain at this level until at least the end of the decade, showing that it'll continue to be a problem for the near future. While asbestos has previously been labelled a condition of post-war industrial workers, today it's very much a 21st century problem.

Why Was Asbestos Used In The First Place?

To begin with, asbestos was embraced by the industrial sector. As a building material its qualities were second to none. In fact, asbestos takes its name from the Greek word for ‘inextinguishable', underlining its many hardy qualities. Among these, were its flame and chemical resistance, and it was also considered to be a great insulator. Asbestos was also very lightweight to transport and use, as well as inexpensive.

Asbestos is naturally occurring and reports of its first use date back as early as the Stone Age. Yet it wasn't until the late 18th century that the hazardous effects of asbestos began to be noted, most likely due to the explosion of its use, and in turn an explosion of casualties. Despite conclusive evidence of the effects of asbestos exposure, today only 55 out of 196 countries have a blanket ban on asbestos, many of which didn't occur until the late 20th century – a full century after the hazards were first documented.

Asbestos Continues To Be A 21st Century Industry

Despite the known risks, some countries continue to mine, export or use asbestos.

As recently as 2010, Canada was producing 150,000 tonnes of asbestos a year – 90% of which was exported to developing countries. Whilst the mining of asbestos has now finished in Canada, the country is yet to impose a blanket ban on the import and use of asbestos products. The asbestos industry also remains a strong part of Canadian culture. Located in South eastern Quebec is the town of Asbestos, so-called after its noteworthy export.

Another nation who continues to handle the fibre is Russia. The town of Asbest, once again named after the fibre at the heart of the town's economy, contains the world's largest open pit asbestos mine. According to the United States Geological Survey, in 2015 Russia produced around 1.1 million tonnes of asbestos and the country also has vast quantities of the fibre in reserves.

Whilst countries such as Canada and Russia have the safeguards in place to make sure that the substance is handled safely, there are large ethical questions to be asked over industrialised nations shipping asbestos to developing countries, such as Brazil and India, that won't have such measures in place.

Even after a ban has been implemented however, it does not remove the risk. While asbestos was banned in the UK in 1999, by 1987, 7 million tonnes had been imported into the UK. Given the scale of asbestos use in this country, it is safe to say that most buildings of this time, such as office blocks, shops and schools, will contain asbestos, yet not much has been done to prevent staff and the public from being unwittingly exposed to the carcinogen.

Who Is At Risk From Asbestos?

It goes without saying that former and current construction workers are at risk. This includes plumbers, decorators and building contractors who may have unknowingly disturbed the substance in insulation, ceilings and partition walls. The same risk is applied to firefighters and emergency responders who may have come into contact with asbestos in a rescue.

More recently, however, new cases are coming to light that show a broader level of risk, in schools, shops and public buildings. Cases of late exposures are also emerging – cases from the 80s, 90s and even the 2000s.

Asbestos In Schools

More than 75% of state schools in Britain contain asbestos and in the last 10 years over 140 school teachers have died from Mesothelioma, according to a report commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health and Safety (APPGOSFH). It is also likely that an unknown number of cleaners, administration staff and caretakers have also died from exposure. In 1997, two years prior to a blanket ban in the UK, The Medical Research Council concluded that "It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings."

Sue StephensThe sad story of Sue Stephens is one such example. Sue spent her life working as a primary school teacher in Buckinghamshire. It is here that she was exposed to asbestos, which led to her being diagnosed with Mesothelioma.

Sue was aware of her exposure to asbestos. She recalled having concerns about dust she may have unsettled through activities such as pinning up children's work to the ceiling, yet initially Sue was told that instances like this would not have produced large enough quantities to be directly linked to her Mesothelioma. Following a Freedom of Information request conducted by Simpson Millar however, it was found that all of the schools Sue had taught in contained asbestos and by working closely with Sue, her former colleagues and the Head Master at the time, further incidences of asbestos exposure became apparent.

Despite a successful subsequent claim, Sue sadly lost her battle with Mesothelioma in June 2016. In spite of their sadness, her family are campaigning tirelessly to put an end to asbestos in schools and you can help by signing their petition here. Sue's story serves as an important example to raise awareness of asbestos in schools, as well as the tenacity needed to obtain justice.

"Dust-Free" Environments

Many cases are also emerging of people who believe they had worked in a "dust-free" environment. This could include office workers who may have ventured to the factory floor, or even retail staff who weren't aware of the dangers in their storerooms.

Steve BrooksSteve Brookes worked as a Retail Manager in a department store, selling soft furnishings. His job was his passion and it was also where he met his wife, Alison. In February 2013 Steve developed breathlessness out of the blue. As Steve was a non-smoker and relatively fit and healthy, the family immediately knew something was wrong. It was then that Steve was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, having come into contact with the carcinogen in the store areas of his workplace.

Steve was just 58 when he was diagnosed and was fortunate enough to survive the disease for just over 2 years, celebrating his 60th birthday in style. Shortly afterwards, however, Steve's condition deteriorated. Despite his courage and 18 cycles of chemotherapy, Steve lost his fight with Mesothelioma in May 2015, but it's important that his memory lives on to raise awareness of how people are being unwittingly exposed to asbestos.

Secondary Exposure From Family And Friends

The spouses and children of those who may have worked in asbestos environments are also at risk of exposure. The legal position for secondary exposure is taken from a medical publication in 1965 and this alerted the Government and employers to the fact that it was possible for family members to contract Mesothelioma from secondary exposure and not just from working with asbestos.

The tragic story of Doreen Gain is an example of how family members can be affected. Doreen was diagnosed with Mesothelioma in December 2012, but, having a history of clean work environments, secondary exposure was always suspected.

Doreen GainDoreen's husband David worked in factories throughout the 1970s. One of the factories in which David worked cut asbestos boards to form side panelling for temporary classrooms, commonly used in schools and hospitals. Once cut, David would take the boards to site and erect the classrooms. As a result, David, and his work clothes, were covered in asbestos dust and fibres on a daily basis. When David returned home, Doreen would shake out his clothing, before laundering them. Remaining fibres, in David's hair and on his skin, would then continue into the house, contaminating the soft furnishings and even the family car, giving rise to further exposures. Doreen was therefore inadvertently inhaling asbestos dust and fibres on a daily basis over a three year period.

Sadly, Doreen lost her battle in April 2015, but her case serves as an important example of the pervasiveness of asbestos and the relative ease at which people can contract this dreadful disease from the clothes and activities of family members.

What Is The Government Doing About Asbestos?

Current Government policy on asbestos is that, as long as the asbestos is in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed, it can be left untouched. Yet there are growing concerns over how effective this is.

According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group, within schools alone, problems include poor training, ineffective management plans and inadequate inspections. The report also concluded that while many schools may think they are managing their asbestos well, in truth it is not up to standard.

There is also a general lack of information sharing and awareness of asbestos. This is of particular concern because it makes an already difficult disease to spot even harder to diagnose. Mesothelioma is slow to appear and can be easily mistaken for other conditions, as symptoms include breathlessness, coughing and chest pain. This means that the condition is usually diagnosed at a late stage, which invariably makes it terminal. Victims usually die within 18 months of a diagnosis, yet it can take 40 years to manifest in a person.

Current policy in buildings such as schools is also not adequate. Asbestos management falls under the generic regulations and Approved Codes of Practice (ACoPs) of all workplaces, yet these were designed to apply to construction workers and therefore unfit for non-industrial workers, let alone growing children.

How You Can Do Your Bit To Raise Awareness Of Asbestos

It's important to remember that most people do not develop serious or life-threatening lung disease as a result of exposure to asbestos. However, you can do your bit to raise awareness:

  • If you are a parent or guardian of school-age child you are entitled to ask if their school contains asbestos and what the asbestos management plan is. Questions could include:
    • Are the children able to touch or damage the asbestos?
    • Are the staff informed of where asbestos is present?
  • If you purchase a property built before 2000, familiarise yourself with the potential hidden dangers in your home before doing any DIY. Consult the HSE to find out where asbestos might be lurking in your home
  • Think about your family history and whether you were likely to have come into contact with the substance, directly or through another person
  • Learn the signs and symptoms of asbestos-related illnesses and stay up to date with your health-checks

If you're concerned about yours or another's risk to asbestos, you should bring it to the attention of the building owner immediately. Employers and carers have a legal duty to provide a safe environment and protect you and your children from exposure to asbestos, which can otherwise lead to long-term and sometimes fatal illnesses.

If you have an asbestos-related illness because you were wrongfully exposed to asbestos, you could be due compensation. Simpson Millar can help you get your life in order, so that you don't have to suffer in silence. If you do have a right to a claim, it's important that you choose a firm that can make a commitment to get the right evidence and results. In some cases, like Sue and Doreen, it requires high levels of tenacity and dedication to get you the outcome you deserve. For more information, get in touch with our Claims Team today.

i It is not yet possible to pin-point the exact number of people that die from asbestos-related illnesses. Unlike Mesothelioma, which is exclusively linked to asbestos exposure, it's harder to prove the origin of asbestos-related lung cancers as it could be linked to more than one source.

Asbestos Exposure Is Happening Now - Simpson Millar LLP Infographic

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