This month, July 2018, saw Action Mesothelioma Day, an event held annually with the aim of increasing public awareness of the persistent dangers of asbestos.
There are a number of such events, including Global Asbestos Awareness Week, a worldwide campaign organised by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), and many organisations seeking to disseminate the same message, including a number of very active campaign groups based here in the UK.
Last month also saw the publication of a National Mesothelioma Audit report 2018 (covering the period 2014-2016) conducted by the Royal College of Physicians on behalf of Mesothelioma UK.
That report indicated that of the 260 people diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma between 2014-2016, 2 in 5 were still alive a year after diagnosis and chemotherapy. Average life expectancy for mesothelioma victims (depending on how advanced it is) is usually around two to three years after diagnosis. It is feasible however that the mesothelioma is so advanced that any chemotherapy (or radiotherapy) will produce all the nasty side effects associated with these treatments with little apparent benefit.
Mesothelioma and asbestosis – diseases of the past?
Despite this report and the efforts of many dedicated people and groups to raise and maintain awareness, the public still largely remains ignorant about the catastrophic impact that asbestos-related disease continues to have. There may be several reasons for this.
Some assume that conditions such as mesothelioma and asbestosis are diseases of the past, given that the use of asbestos has ceased. In fact, white chrysotile asbestos was only banned in 1999, but nonetheless there is a feeling that, surely, cases should be declining now?
Equally, the most ‘at risk’ industry occupations associated with asbestos are similarly less prevalent nowadays. Heavy ’metal bashing’ industries including shipbuilding have seen a slow and steady decline, so again, surely the number of people employed in these jobs – and therefore at risk of asbestos exposure – has also declined? If only that were the case.
Asbestos-related diseases – the statistics
The latest statistics continue to show that the dangers of asbestos are still with us. And are likely to be for the foreseeable future. Recently published government statistics show that Coroners in England and Wales recorded approximately 2,700 deaths from industrial disease in 2016, many of which were due to asbestos exposure.
The latest Health & Safety Executive figures suggest there were 2,595 deaths related to mesothelioma, asbestosis, and pleural thickening in 2016. They also estimated a similar number of deaths due to asbestos-related lung cancer. The charity Mesothelioma UK expects the number of cases due to historic exposure to asbestos to peak within the next decade, although secondary exposure will then become a much more significant factor.
Secondary asbestos exposure becoming more prevalent
The ‘official line’ is that asbestos where it is in place (and that’s in many more buildings like offices or schools than might be imagined) is safe provided it is not disturbed. The National Union of Teachers suggest that as many as 205 teachers have died because of their exposure to asbestos fibres, often simply by pinning notices or schoolwork on walls, since 2001.
Recent cases of secondary exposure arise when people like plumbers, electricians, decorators or even DIY-ers come across asbestos without knowing it’s there, often working without the necessary personal protective equipment. Many more recent exposure cases involve people who did not work or come into contact with asbestos directly, but were close to others who did. Wives who may have been exposed washing their husband’s contaminated overalls, those living near to factories or, more tragically, children who were hugged by their father while he was still wearing contaminated work clothes or had their clothes washed along with his.
A lengthy latency period
Perhaps the most devastating thing about diseases arising from asbestos exposure – especially the incurable cancer mesothelioma – is the fact that symptoms generally don’t usually develop until many years after that initial exposure.
It can take anything from 10 to 60 years for symptoms of mesothelioma to emerge, although the average is usually about 20-30 years. Although medical science is advancing, by that time it is normally too late for any meaningful or successful medical intervention. Palliative care or pain relief are usually the only options available.
Mesothelioma sufferers not responding to conventional pain relief may benefit from an alternative treatment called Percutaneous Spinal Cordotomy – presently only offered at a limited number of centres in the UK. The procedure involves placing an electrode into the nerves in the spinal cord which transmits pain information to the brain. The nerves are heated and some patients treated this way are reported to have gained some relief, although the procedure is not always successful if the nerves cannot be identified safely.
One important consequence of that lengthy latency period is that many sufferers don’t make the connection between their illness and whatever work they may have done decades in the past. They may ascribe their symptoms to ‘old age’ or some other issue if they have never been in direct contact with the substance.
Perhaps the most aggressive, and inevitably fatal, cancer that results from exposure to asbestos fibres is mesothelioma – a cancer of the mesothelium. The definite and direct causal link between mesothelioma and asbestos has long since been established, yet mesothelioma itself remains one of the least researched of the UK's top 20 cancers.
The charity Mesothelioma UK remains the primary source for information and support, but the Government has yet to fund a genuinely national centre for asbestos-related disease research. (Australia has committed AUS$6.2m to establish just such a centre.)
Mesothelioma has different names depending on where it’s located in the body. The majority (3 in 4) cases of mesothelioma develop in the pleura (the delicate lining of the lungs) which are normally lubricated by fluid and slide over each other as you breathe. Mesothelioma causes these linings to thicken and press inwards on the lung.
Around 1 in 4 cases of mesothelioma develop in the peritoneum (the outer lining of the abdomen) causing thickening of the linings surrounding the abdominal organs and a collection of fluid in the abdomen.
Pleural mesothelioma often starts as a lot of tiny lumps (nodules) in the pleura, which may not show up on scans or x-rays until they are quite large and the disease has progressed.
The symptoms of pleural mesothelioma (such as breathlessness or difficulty in breathing or a persistent cough that doesn’t go away) can be similar to other diseases and if you experience these problems it does not mean that you definitely have mesothelioma. However if you do experience any similar symptoms, especially if they persist, you should see your GP without delay.
Getting help with mesothelioma and asbestos
While a compensation claim cannot help with a cure, a settlement can at least make life a little easier for victims and their families. ‘Fast track’ procedures have been agreed for asbestos and mesothelioma claims. A claim should be started within three years of when a person knew or ought to have known they were suffering with an illness caused by asbestos exposure – not the date of the original exposure.
If the company or organisation responsible for that exposure no longer exists for whatever reason, it is still possible to legally ‘resurrect’ them – or more accurately their insurers – for the purposes of making a claim. Our specialist asbestos disease lawyers are highly experienced in tracing companies in these circumstances.
If you or a family member have been diagnosed with mesothelioma you may be able to make a claim for compensation. Our specialist lawyers are here to provide legal advice and support.