Witness Appeal: Use of Asbestos at Knowle Council Offices

18 August 2020

Industrial disease has been recorded as the cause of death of a former East Devon Council CEO, with assistant coroner Debra Archer commenting that the malignant mesothelioma was more than likely caused by asbestos exposure during Mr Vallender’s employment.

A Local Authority Solicitor and CEO for the East Devon District Council between July 1984 and June 2002, John Vallender was given the devastating mesothelioma diagnosis in January 2018 after he sought medical help for breathlessness and severe back pain.

Initially thought to be suffering from a blood clot, the 72-year-old father of three was referred by his GP for an X-ray, before further intrusive investigations revealed the extent of his condition. He sadly passed away in November 2019.

Before his death, he instructed Mesothelioma Claims experts at Simpson Millar Solicitors to investigate his employment history and issued an appeal for others who worked at the Council to come forward with any information they may have.  

According to a freedom of information request carried out by Mr Vallender, the building - which has now been sold after the Council acquired new premises in Honiton - contains large quantities of asbestos.

In the 90s action was taken to remove asbestos from the Council Chamber, and whilst the Council acknowledge its presence in the building, it is claimed that the fibres were not disturbed and would have been safe.

Speaking of his ordeal before his death in November last year, Mr Vallender said, “The Council building itself was very old, large and dusty. My office was refurbished during my time there and I saw people carrying out maintenance activity over the years and that included rubbing down fire doors and working up in the roof space above the offices on the top floor.

“It feels very plausible that I - as well as my colleagues - would have been inhaling dangerous and microscopic asbestos fibres as a result or working in and walking around the entire building, over the years, and I am hopeful that this appeal with provide additional evidence to support my case.”

Simpson Millar is now appealing on behalf of Mr Vallender’s family for anyone else who worked at Knowle Council Offices between 1984 and 2002 to come forward with any information they may have in relation to maintenance and repair work undertaken over the years. 

The family’s Solicitor, Helen Grady of Simpson Millar said, "Normally we can secure very early admissions of responsibility and settlements in these cases. However, John worked in an office environment at the Knowle in Sidmouth, where the exposures to asbestos were low level and very subtle.

"However, the only asbestos survey report retained by the Council does show high levels of asbestos within the building and John confirmed in his statements that maintenance men were seen working around the building throughout the years he worked there between 1984 up until his retirement in 2002.

"We have other witnesses who recalled an occasion when workmen accidentally disturbed asbestos during their maintenance works and at the time this was reported in the local press as office staff had potentially been put at risk.

"John also had cause to go into the basement area where refurbishment works were carried out in the mid 80s to convert areas into a safe bunker for staff to continue working in the event of a nuclear attack.

"Like many basements, this is a place where high levels of asbestos have been used for fire retardant purposes. It is now hoped that cleaners and other people who worked at The Knowle in Sidmouth will come forward if they have any knowledge of the asbestos used and removed in the basement area.

"John, like many of his senior colleagues, genuinely believed that the asbestos in the building was safe as it was chrysotile (white) asbestos and this, of course, was not ever the case. The asbestos surveys show that some of the asbestos was brown (amosite) and some a mix fibre that could have included the equally highly carcinogenic, crocidolite (blue).

"While John was in a position of responsibility as CEO, his employers did not make him aware of the fatal dangers of low level asbestos in these old buildings. This is a problem for the future as many of our old schools and buildings contain asbestos as the UK was a major importer of asbestos and by 1985, seven million tons had been imported into the UK to use in our buildings."

Mr Vallender's wife Barbara said she hopes other people who worked at Knowle in Sidmouth, will come forward with information to help John and others who may be suffering ill health related to asbestos.

John Vallender and his wife Barbara

John and Barbara on holiday together

She said, "One of my concerns is for other people who worked in the building that might also be ill as a consequence of that. It may be that other people have breathing difficulties because of mesothelioma, but it's quite difficult to diagnose.

"John had health problems for 12 months before being diagnosed so people need to be aware of the early signs.

"John was a brilliant father, husband and granddad. All it takes is to inhale between one to three asbestos fibres to cause this serious illness."

If anyone has any information then please contact Helen Grady of Simpson Millar on Freephone 0808 129 3320 or use the contact form below.

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