Secondary contact with asbestos fibres can cause mesothelioma, says study


A new report from Australia has revealed that over 60% of DIY enthusiasts have been exposed to asbestos. The findings suggest that asbestos-related diseases are affecting more people than first suspected.

Asbestos Removal Results Mesothelioma

The study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, also found that nearly 38% of mesothelioma cases among women were attributable to home renovation.

Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer of the lung lining, or pleura, caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres. Although the disease can take up to 4 decades to appear after first exposure, fewer than 40% of patients survive for more than 1 year after diagnosis.

Until its UK ban in 1990, asbestos was commonly used in the building trade for its fire-retardant and insulation properties. The material is thought to be present in many dwellings and public buildings built prior to the ban.

For this reason the majority of mesothelioma victims have been building workers involved in the demolition or refurbishment of old schools, offices and industrial premises.

However, the Australian study suggests that people in 'secondary' contact with asbestos – whereby fibres present on someone else's clothing or effects are inhaled – face similar risks.

Norm Williams, a plasterer who worked on shopping centre stores, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1985. He died 6 months after his diagnosis aged 54.

The study found that Mr Williams's daughter, Lou, also developed the disease, with the likelihood that she had inhaled asbestos fibres from her father's work overalls and inside his car.

Despite repeated chemotherapy and surgery since her diagnosis in 2003, Ms Williams is still alive. However, in the past 9 years she has attended 50 funerals of friends and associates who have fallen to mesothelioma.

In the 1980s and again in 2006 Clare Collins, 50, was involved with 2 renovations on a New South Wales house. She now believes that her life is in danger, along with the lives of her mother and her daughter.

"I am very much a DIY person," said Ms Collins, who is now involved with an asbestos awareness campaign. "I ripped up carpets, knocked bathroom and kitchen tiles off walls, ripped up old vinyl."

"There was asbestos everywhere in that house – in the fence, roof, walls," she said. "I worry I have something that could turn up in 10 years' time, but my main concern is Alice. Did I do something that may have put my daughter's health at risk?"

According to this summer's Asbestos Management Review Report, 4,700 Australians have died from mesothelioma since records began in the early '80s. It estimates that 25,000 more will die over the next 40 years.

But as the information, support and awareness group Asbestoswise notes, these figures are modest given that "almost everyone" has been exposed to some asbestos fibres.

With some 2,300 deaths per year, the UK has the world's highest mortality rates from mesothelioma. Annual UK deaths from the condition have risen by some 400% in the last 3 decades.

This exceeds the number of fatalities due to other, more well-known cancers such as cervical, testicular cancer, thyroid, mouth cancer and malignant melanoma.

Emma Costin at Simpson Millar comments "in recent years we have seen a marked increase in the numbers of secondary exposure mesothelioma claims, both from spouses and children of the individual who worked with asbestos. We have also seen increasing numbers of cases where exposure to asbestos has been slight or perhaps incidental to DIY or other building work. Most worrying perhaps is the increase in claims where the exposure took place at school. It is a scandal that so many of our schools and public buildings are still riddled with asbestos and asbestos products, so we may expect these worrying trends to persist for some time yet."

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