Asbestos related illnesses can take many years to develop after exposure to asbestos and in the main are diseases affecting the lungs brought about through inhalation of asbestos fibres which become trapped in the linings of the lungs. Over time the fibres cause inflammation, irritation and scarring to the lung tissue which can develop into one or more asbestos related illnesses including pleural plaques, pleural thickening, pleural effusion, asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Whilst it is recognised there are serious and incurable conditions caused by asbestos most asbestos related diseases can be managed by lifestyle changes without significantly affecting quality of life. Malignant conditions like lung cancer and mesothelioma are less common than benign illnesses which include asbestosis, pleural thickening and pleural plaques. The Health & Safety Executive confirm other cancers can be caused by asbestos which include cancer of the larynx, ovary, pharynx and stomach and there are unconfirmed suspicions asbestos can also cause COPD and kidney cancer.
The slow progression of an asbestos illness occurs over many years following initial exposure to asbestos dust and fibres and typically develops between 10 years and 30 years, sometimes as long as 50 or 60 years later. This delayed period until symptoms become apparent is referred to as the ‘latency period’ and it is important to understand that not everyone exposed to asbestos fibres will go on to develop a disease caused by asbestos. The risk of developing such a condition is increased with the level of exposure and also by any smoking habits due to the toxin combinations of tobacco and asbestos.
People most at risk of developing an asbestos-related illness are those who worked with asbestos or products containing asbestos fibres, albeit, any exposure to potentially harmful asbestos fibres can present a risk of developing an illness. Family members of workers also face the risk of developing an asbestos illness through inhalation of asbestos fibres brought into the home on the workers’ clothing, hair or skin. Many instances are reported where people have contracted an illness through environmental exposure to asbestos which is well documented in reports concerning the former Cape Asbestos factory in Barking, East London which was owned by The Cape Asbestos Company founded in 1983. The company mined asbestos in South Africa which was imported into Europe where it was woven into fire-resistant materials and as the asbestos industry grew so too did the company and in 1913 three factories were opened in London including the 7 acre plant in Barking were asbestos products were produced which included asbestos fireproof mattresses, civilian gas masks and filters. The factory attracted thousands of local workers who worked without proper protection and received a higher rate of pay than other local employers. Personal accounts from residents within Barking recount scenes out of Christmas novel where local houses and streets were covered in white asbestos dust which had the appearance of snow. Children played in dust and mothers were required to shake dust from clothing as it dried on washing lines.
Concern grew over the Barking factory’s fatality rate with newspaper articles appearing as early as 1929 but sadly the factory remained in operation until 1968 the same year The British Occupational Hygiene Society proposed safety limits. Barking and Dagenham is in the top 10 UK asbestos blackspots and has the highest recorded rate of women suffering from mesothelioma. The ground on which the site stood is now a housing estate but remains contaminated by asbestos.
Similar stories exist in respect of the notorious Turner & Newall asbestos product manufacturer and mine operator which was founded in Rochdale, England in 1871 and grew through various company mergers into the UK’s largest asbestos manufacturers. In 1998 the business was acquired by Federal-Mogul Corporation who overwhelmed by asbestos-related compensation claims forced the company in bankruptcy. Confidential industry documents viewed by the Independent newspaper are purported to suggest that executives of the giant Turner & Newall in Rochdale monitored people, including journalists and activists, and enlisted the help of disgraced Rochdale MP Cyril Smith in efforts to discredit an award winning documentary which exposed the plight of asbestos workers who were dying from cancer.
In 1985 raw amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos) were banned in the UK and in 1999, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott signed The Asbestos (Prohibitions) (Amendment) Regulations which banned chrysotile asbestos (white asbestos) thereby underling a complete ban on the import, use and sale of asbestos products within the UK.
Everyone is likely to be exposed to asbestos at some time in their life on account low levels of asbestos are present in the air, water and soil but most avoid developing any illness. Your chance of developing an asbestos-related disease is based upon risk factors which consider the extent of asbestos inhaled and the period of time this exposure occurred over. Referred to as ‘dosage’ the more exposure to asbestos encountered the greater your risk will be of contracting an asbestos illness and it is generally those workers who handled the material on a regular basis or through substantial environmental contact who become ill. Others factors which could increases the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease include genetics, age and gender, exposure to mineral fibres, radiation. Some studies suggest a controversial link to contaminated polio vaccines administered between 1955 and 1963.
Lung cancer and asbestosis are specific illnesses which are normally associated to workers who have endured ‘moderate’ levels of exposure, typically 5 – 10 years and those who have endured ‘heavy exposure’ perhaps over a year or more. Trades regularly associated to these diseases involve insulators (‘laggers’), ship builders, plumbers, heating engineers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, boiler makers, metal workers, roofers and factory workers.
Common symptoms of an asbestos lung disease include shortness of breath, chest pain, a persistent cough, tiredness, rapid and unexplained weight loss, hypertension, blood in the sputum and clubbed (swollen) finger tips and any such health concerns should be reported to your GP at the earliest opportunity. During initial consultation with your GP it is important to discuss any previous exposure to asbestos fibres. An examination will be made of your lungs and heart using a stethoscope which enables your GP to identify abnormal sounds and other potential problems which might include blocked or narrowed airways, scar tissue, lung disease and other respiratory disorders. The results of this examination can help to determine what, if any further investigations might be required.
Diagnosis of an asbestos related illness is normally made using a range of investigations which include lung function tests, chest x-ray, CT Scan, MRI Scan and a lung biopsy which involves the removal and examination of lung tissue under a microscope.
The first compensation claim for an asbestos-related illness occurred in 1972 and since that time many claims have been made against former employers who negligently allowed the exposure to occur. According to HSE forecasts asbestos-related deaths have increased over the last 50 years and are anticipated to peak around 2020.
Victims of asbestos-related diseases are eligible to claim Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) which is a weekly non-means tested benefit paid to workers’ who have developed a prescribed asbestos disease as a result of their work. The rate of benefit is determined by the extent of their disability. In 2016 in excess of 3,500 new applications for IIDB were made.