Asbestos is non-flammable, heat resistant, and extremely flexible and durable. It was nicknamed “the magic mineral” because these properties made it suitable for use in thousands of products. Asbestos has also been dubbed “the hidden killer”. When materials containing asbestos are damaged or disturbed, fibres are released into the air. Each fibre is so small it is invisible to the naked eye. When breathed in, the fibres, remain in your body, and can cause a number of different diseases.
Even today, around 5,000 workers in the UK die each year from asbestos-related diseases. Because they typically take years to develop, more people are still being diagnosed with these diseases each year, even though asbestos is now banned.
In the UK, the import, supply and use of crocidolite (‘blue asbestos’) and amosite (‘brown asbestos’) was banned as of 1st January 1986.
Chrysotile (‘white asbestos’) was similarly banned as of 24th November 1999.
However, many buildings built before these dates still contain asbestos, and so even today people are still being exposed to asbestos.
Due to its unique chemical composition and physical properties, in the 20th century asbestos was used in over 3,000 products, including:
cement building materials
lagging for boilers and pipework
insulating mattresses and rope
fire resistant insulation boards
sprayed fire-proofing products
floor tiles and coverings
water and sewage pipe
acoustic and thermal insulation
ropes, yarns and cloths
millboard and paper
friction materials for vehicle brakes,
clutches, lifts and machinery
mastics, sealants, putties, adhesives,
and wall plugging compound
Many of these products are still being manufactured, sold and used in the developing word, even today. However, asbestos has been found in places you would not expect. The Royal Yacht Britannia was riddled with asbestos, and asbestos has been found in the roof space and ventilation ducts of the House of Commons.
In Britain, asbestos is often associated with heavy industry, due to its widespread use in power stations, shipbuilding, the railways, and in the dockyards.
Although the use of asbestos was finally banned in Britain in 1999, asbestos is still present in the fabric of the buildings in which many of us live and work, for example in wall cavities and lofts.
Consequently many of us are still being exposed to asbestos despite the ban, with workers involved in the maintenance, refurbishment or demolition of older buildings being particularly at risk.
There are a number of different asbestos-related diseases.
It is important to know which disease you have, as they vary hugely in terms of the impact they may have on your health.
Diffuse Pleural Thickening
The pleura is a membrane that surrounds your lungs and lines the inside of your rib cage. After breathing in asbestos fibres, these fibres can work their out to the pleura, causing scarring and hardening. The pleura then thickens, which can cause breathlessness. If x-ray evidence suggests your pleural thickening is severe enough, you may be able to get industrial injuries benefits. You may also be able to get civil compensation.
These are localised areas of thickening caused by asbestos fibres which have worked their way out to the pleura. Pleural plaques are usually symptomless. Pleural plaques are a sign that you have been exposed to asbestos, but you cannot get benefits or compensation for having this disease if your only exposure to asbestos took place in England.
Exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung cancer. However, there are many other causes of lung cancer. You can usually get industrial injuries benefits for lung cancer if you also have asbestosis. If you have lung cancer but no signs of asbestosis, whether you can get industrial injuries benefits will depend on the type of work you have done as an employee and how long you did it for. You may also be able to sue an employer for civil compensation.
This refers to scarring and hardening of the lung caused by asbestos fibres. It is sometimes called interstitial pulmonary fibrosis. Asbestosis causes breathlessness, and usually progresses slowly. If you have asbestosis, you can usually get industrial injuries benefits. You may also be able to get civil compensation.
This is a type of cancer that begins in the pleura or in the lining of the abdominal cavity. The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma can develop even in people who have had relatively little exposure to asbestos. If you have mesothelioma, you can usually get industrial injuries benefits. You may also be able to get civil compensation.
For information on the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of Asbestos disease, please click here.
A PDF of the excellent ‘The Mesothelioma Handbook’ (2016), published by the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund in collaboration with Dr Helen Clayson, can be found here.
Asbestos Victim Support Groups
The Asbestos Victims Support Groups’ Forum UK was set up in 2005 to co-ordinate the work that asbestos victims’ support groups do on behalf of asbestos victims. All Forum members are independent not-for-profit organisations or registered charities. All members must abide by the Forum’s constitution and principles. Along with ourselves, the following groups are all members of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, a list can be found here.
Other groups are not full Forum members, but offer advice to asbestos victims and their families, a list can be found here.
Other Asbestos Support Groups
Other groups in the UK whose primary activity is to support and to campaign on behalf of asbestos victims, and to raise funds for medical research into asbestos-related diseases can be found here.
Other Useful Websites and Resource
British Asbestos Newsletter A quarterly publication focused on asbestos-related news in Britain, distributed to victim support groups, public bodies, lawyers, solicitors, barristers, researchers, doctors, academics and environmentalists.
London Hazards Centre Provides free information and advice to workers, trade union reps, and campaigners around health and safety in the workplace.
International Ban Asbestos Secretariat Established in 2000, IBAS works to share information between like-minded groups and individuals, with the aim of achieving a global asbestos ban.
Mesothelioma UK A charity dedicated to providing specialist information and education around mesothelioma, and to improving care and treatment for mesothelioma patients.
HSE Asbestos Advice Information on asbestos in the workplace for employers, employees and people who are self-employed. Includes information on the regulations for working with, and managing, asbestos.
International Mesothelioma Interest Group An independent international group of scientists and clinicians working to understand, cure and prevent mesothelioma.
Hazards The Hazards Campaign is a UK-wide network of Hazards Centres and campaigners. The Hazards Campaign supports those organising and campaigning for justice and safety at work.
Greater Manchester Hazards Centre A great organisation providing free information and advice to workers, trade union reps, and campaigners around health and safety in the workplace.
June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund A registered charity that sponsors and promote vital research into the causes and treatment of mesothelioma.
Asbestos in Schools Campaign A UK-wide campaign addressing the ongoing issue of asbestos in our children’s schools.
Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Research Fund 0191 263 7386. An organisation that raises money for mesothelioma research.