One of the major reasons for the high number of mesothelioma fatalities, currently running at 2,000 every year in England and Wales and forecast to continue for at least another 40 years, was the slow introduction and enforcement of regulations throughout the twentieth century. It was only as recently as January 2005 that the actual use of white asbestos in building materials, previously only banned as an import in 1999, came into force.
The commercial importation of asbestos into the UK began in the 1880s, initially for use in the textile industries mostly established in the north of England. The first asbestos-related death recorded as ‘pulmonary asbestosis’ was in 1924 and by 1930 a Government-commissioned report had found high levels of asbestosis among asbestos factory workers, which led to the first Asbestos Industry Regulations to be introduced the following year.
However, the regulations only applied to a small minority of workers who were directly exposed to dust in asbestos factories when involved in ‘specific scheduled’ processes of asbestos manufacture, which excluded a large number of workers, such as those employed in the building trade, insulation engineers and plumbers.
Other exclusions involved factories or workshops where, a ‘limited use of asbestos’, meant all or any of the Regulations could be suspended or relaxed without apparently any risk to the health of those employed! As a result, the number of both men and women exposed to asbestos grew at a huge rate from the 1940s onwards, the beginning of the ‘peak period’.
In addition, companies did little to provide any asbestos awareness or protection against the breathing in of the deadly asbestos fibre dust, especially of the most toxic amphibole forms of amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos). Their needle-like fibres would permanently impale themselves in the lung linings, leading to inflammation and asbestosis diseases or eventually causing tissue cells to form the fatal tumours of incurable mesothelioma cancer.
The timeline for the development of asbestos-related disease is up to 50 years from initial exposure to the first appearance of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms such as shortness of breath, persistent coughing, sweating, weight-loss or back pain.
Yet evidence for the growing emergence of a link between lung cancers and asbestos exposure only came to light from the mid 1950s and 60s, which eventually led to the first Asbestos Regulations of 1969 to limit exposure to asbestos dust – nearly 40 years after the first Regulations of 1931.
Asbestos regulation was not regarded as an important issue of urgent social reform during the peak period of use simply because the low number of deaths recorded when compared to the many mining fatalities. Some 700,000 were employed in the mining industry compared to 15,000 in asbestos manufacture, which actually meant the actual frequency ratio was similar.
The import of brown and blue asbestos was finally banned in 1985 but the use of crocidolite (white asbestos) was allowed to be continued to be used in the building industry due to its less dangerous curly ‘serpentine’ fibres. The Control of Asbestos Regulations from 2002 further reduced the risk of exposure to asbestos for those working in property maintenance / construction, asbestos removal and for employees working in buildings containing asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).
Consequently, entire generations of workers from the 1930s to the 1980s at least, and still alive today, were exposed to asbestos in their workplace right across the UK industrial heartlands of construction, manufacturing, engineering, shipbuilding, vehicle assembly and the railways.
As a result, the number of asbestosis claim cases continues to rise, more than doubling in 2010 and mesothelioma fatality has increased 3 per cent in 2008 with a further 45,000 mesothelioma deaths expected until at least 2050.