Asbestos death toll in South Yorkshire 'shows no signs of slowing', with danger still lurking in schools, hospitals and homes

As a partner and asbestos-related disease specialist at Sheffield law firm Irwin Mitchell, Adrian Budgen has handled hundreds of tragic cases over the years.

Thursday, 28th November 2019, 11:08 am
Updated Friday, 29th November 2019, 2:25 pm

As a partner and asbestos-related disease specialist at Sheffield law firm Irwin Mitchell, Adrian Budgen has handled hundreds of tragic cases over the years.

Sadly, he has yet to see any reduction in the number of people diagnosed, despite predictions the death rate would peak around now before falling.

Sheffield, Doncaster and the rest of South Yorkshire continue to pay the devastating price of the region’s industrial heritage, he says, with many workers only being diagnosed years after downing tools with diseases including mesothelioma, asbestosis and asbestos-related lung cancer.

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Jean White, who is battling the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma, during her time as a nurse at Doncaster Royal Infirmary

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It remains a ‘clear and present danger’, adds Mr Budgen, for people in other professions like nursing and teaching, and for those carrying out repairs to homes where asbestos lurks, as well as for millions of people in parts of the world where it is still widely used.

The lethal fibres within the once ubiquitous building material kill around 5,000 workers in the UK each year, according to the Health and Safety Executive – more than the number of people dying on our roads.

The use of all forms has been banned since 1999, when white asbestos was finally outlawed, but asbestos remains present in many buildings – including schools, hospitals, homes and offices – constructed before then.

Adrian Budgen, head of the asbestos disease litigation team at Sheffield-based law firm Irwin Mitchell

“The sad reality is that there are still people being diagnosed daily and asbestos-related cancer remains incurable and almost always fatal,” said Mr Budgen.

“It’s often viewed as a disease of the past but it’s very much of the present in terms of the number of people affected. One in 100 men over the age of 40 are expected to develop mesothelioma, which is a very worrying statistic.

“In the UK, the number of people affected should reduce over the next 30 years or so but at the moment we’ve yet to see that reduction and the numbers are as high as ever.

“In South Yorkshire, our industrial heritage, with steelworks, carriage building works, power stations and what have you, where asbestos was widely used, means the death rate is higher than elsewhere.

Jean White, who is battling the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma, today

“The highest incidence within the region is in Doncaster, largely due to the British Rail carriage building works there which employed 10,000 people at one stage.

“It’s probably lowest in Barnsley because that was predominantly a mining area and although asbestos was used at collieries, it wasn’t present to such an extent.”

Irwin Mitchell represents around 600 people every year nationally, and 80-100 in South Yorkshire, who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma alone.

Mr Budgen has been representing victims for around 30 years and recalls a time when consultants at Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital might have seen five or six mesothelioma patients a year, a number he says is now more like 50.

Vicky Russo and her late mother Mary Lill

While the majority of his clients are still industrial victims who handled asbestos before the danger was so widely acknowledged, he has represented nurses, doctors and teachers, and says many more people remain at risk because the material is ‘very much present in our infrastructure’.

At least 86 per cent of Britain’s schools contain asbestos, according to the National Education Union (NEU), and last year it was revealed that nine out of 10 NHS trusts have asbestos in their hospitals.

The Star last year revealed how the substance could be found in more than 80 council-maintained schools across Sheffield, though Sheffield Council insisted regular risk assessments were carried out to ensure the safety of staff and pupils.

The heat-resistant mineral is also present in many homes, where it was widely used around pipes and boilers but is also found in soffit boards, ceiling and floor tiles, and many other building materials.

“It’s a real concern, particularly in schools because children are more susceptible and they’re naturally quite boisterous so they’re more likely to bang doors and knock walls where asbestos could be present and deteriorating,” said Mr Budgen.

“I’m a member of the Asbestos in Schools group and we think there should be a phased removal of asbestos from all schools by 2028. We don’t think the Government has taken this seriously enough. It seems much more concerned about getting asbestos out of the Houses of Parliament, which are riddled with the stuff.

“Asbestos in homes is also a big worry. The HSE ran a big campaign recently warning people about the dangers of asbestos, which was aimed at workers in the construction industry, but people doing DIY generally aren’t aware of the risks and don’t know where it’s present in their homes.

“I’d really like to see a model of a house in all DIY stores showing where asbestos is most likely to be found in homes of a certain age and how you can minimise the risk of exposure.

“There’s also an increasing amount of waste containing asbestos which is being fly-tipped, sometimes at beauty spots, and posing a risk to passersby as well as those disposing of the rubbish.”

The cases Mr Budgen deals with vary greatly.

The vast majority of his clients are aged over 65 but the youngest was just 32, having been exposed as a child while sitting on his father’s lap, on top of his asbestos-riddled overalls, when his dad returned from work.

The biggest individual payout he has secured was £4.37 million for a man in his 40s, but he says most people he represents are thinking not of themselves but about providing for the families they will leave behind.

“They may also want some measure of justice because it’s a very presentable disease and no one should be put at risk, particularly when people have gone into the workplace aged 15 or 16 and put into situations where they’re totally unprotected, which should never have happened,” he adds.

“People feel robbed of their lives and the time they should have spent with their loved ones.”

Vicky Russo’s mum Mary Lill, from Beighton, died from mesothelioma in 2016, aged 68 – more than 40 years after handling asbestos sheets while working at a fire door factory.

Vicky, who is part of Irwin Mitchell’s specialist asbestos related claims team, but never expected to one day be supporting her own mother, has spoken of her heartbreak in an attempt to raise awareness of the dangers which remain 20 years after the ban.

“Mum and I were very close. She was always there for us and we all miss her so much. Working at Irwin Mitchell meant I could source the help Mum needed, but my years of working with asbestos victims meant none of us were under any illusions about what a diagnosis of mesothelioma might mean. Even so nothing prepares you for the impact on family and friends.”

“You really do need support when things get tough. Pursuing the legal case kept Mum going and having worked in Irwin Mitchell’s asbestos team I knew I could trust their considerable expertise in pursuing the claim quickly and sensitively. Mum worked in a nursing home and helped so many people in her life and she would be proud if her story could help others facing the same struggle.”

The Star earlier this year highlighted an appeal by former nurse Jean White, who is battling mesothelioma and wants to find out precisely how she came into contact with asbestos which is thought to have caused the terminal cancer.

The 73-year-old grandmother-of-four, who lives in Gleadless, Sheffield, believes she may have been exposed to the material while working at Doncaster Royal Infirmary in the 1960s.

“I have so many questions about how I could have been exposed to asbestos and I believe I deserve answers, not just for me but for my family,” she said.

Irwin Mitchell, says Mr Budgen, was the first law firm to recover the cost for hospices – which rely on donations – of caring for those dying due to asbestos. To date, it has reclaimed more than £100,000 for St Luke’s Hospice Sheffield.

Asbestos may be banned in the UK but it is still widely used in other parts of the world, and Mr Budgen says it is a problem moving from west to east, where workers in countries including India and Thailand are being exposed without any protection.

“It’s commonly used as a cheap building material in many eastern countries, which is a real worry," he said.

“Russia is still a major producer of white asbestos, as was Canada until recently, and it’s very much a clear and present danger.”