Like leaded paint and gas fires, asbestos is a word that just reeks of a pre-Health & Safety world in which people unwittingly existed, day in, day out, in houses and workplaces chock-full of toxic and dangerous materials.
Though it is now known that not everyone was unaware of the hazardous effects of working with raw asbestos before even the 1950s and 1960s, this didn’t prevent thousands of workers being effectively sent to their deaths when they were employed to construct and work in buildings incorporating the material in question.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring silicate mineral that became a prized building material from the late 19th century onwards. Being an ideal soundproofing material with great tensile strength as well as being fire and heat-resistant and invulnerable to electrical and chemical damage, it became an invaluable commodity among manufacturers and builders. When used in construction, it was often mixed with cement. It was also considered an ideal material for hotplate wires and building insulation. Blue and brown asbestos was only banned in the UK as relatively recently as 1985 – and white asbestos not until 1999.
The link between those working with asbestos as a building material and their contracting serious illnesses as a result was first commented on in 1898, though the two were not completely connected until much later, quite possibly because of its commercial value. In 1952 it was suggested that products containing asbestos should carry warning labels, but this was never instigated.
The inhalation of asbestos fibres over a prolonged time period can lead to debilitating sickness and is often fatal. As a result, it is those who worked with it on a day-to-day basis between the 1950s and the early 1980s are those most likely to be seeking asbestos compensation. One-off incidents of high-level exposure to asbestos are, however, unlikely to result in disease - just as with long-term exposure to low-levels of the material.
The diseases most likely to result from chronic asbestos exposure are asbestosis and pleural abnormalities like mesothelioma and lung cancer. Incubation periods can last up to 30 years.
The issue of asbestos exposure is also pertinent in cases where the material – or asbestos-containing materials – become airborne. This can happen owing to wear of tear of a building containing it, potentially putting its inhabitants at risk. However, the fact remains that construction and maintenance workers are still at the greatest risk of asbestos poisoning, as their work may well involve the disturbing of the material. Likewise those in janitorial positions are also at risk, as they may unwittingly find themselves clearing up old materials that contain large amounts of asbestos, so it is not only those who worked with it in the past five decades who may be making claims.
If you or anyone you know has been exposed to asbestos in either a living or work environment, notify your GP of your situation as soon as possible