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Asbestos and Mesothelioma in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom (UK) has faced similar problems with asbestos that workers and others in the U.S. have. However, the situation in the UK is worse because the country allowed asbestos to be used longer than other nations. Mesothelioma cancer rates are higher in the UK than in the U.S. and people are still suffering because of the abundant use of asbestos in a number of industries.

The use of asbestos in a variety of products and industries, and by major manufacturers, like Turner & Newall, put many workers and resident at risk of developing mesothelioma and other illnesses. Laws regulating asbestos in the UK were not in place until the 1980s, and because of the long latency of asbestos illnesses, people are still suffering and dying from these diseases. Laws are now in place to protect workers, but for those already affected lawsuits are helping to provide compensation.

Facts about Asbestos in the UK

The U.S. began regulating asbestos use and banning certain products in the 1970s, but this didn’t happen in the UK until a decade later. The result is that the country has some of the highest mesothelioma rates in the world. Here are some other facts about asbestos and related illnesses in the UK:

  • Every week in the UK, an average of 20 trade workers die because of asbestos-related illness.
  • Any building constructed before 2000 may contain asbestos.
  • Millions of homes and other buildings currently are known to have asbestos in them.
  • Nearly every person working in a trade in the UK has been in contact with asbestos in the workplace.
  • Mesothelioma deaths have finally reached a peak and leveled out, with about 2,500 deaths per year since 2015.
  • The number of mesothelioma deaths is not expected to start declining until 2020 or later.
  • The number of women diagnosed with mesothelioma continues to increase every year, but men are still overwhelmingly affected more often.

Where Asbestos Was Used and Asbestos Products

Asbestos was heavily used throughout the UK and in a variety of industries because of its ability to insulate, fireproof, and add strength without much additional weight and with flexibility. Certain areas and cities in the UK saw particularly heavy use, including Glasgow, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Portsmouth, North and South Tyneside, Barrow-in-Furness, Plymouth, Southampton, Eastleigh, and Sunderland.

Some examples of the industries that used a lot of asbestos include all types of factories, chemical plants, oil refineries, power plants, construction, and shipbuilding. A few large companies with factories and headquarters in the UK, including Turner & Newall and Johns Manville, were responsible for creating many of the products that contained asbestos. Examples of products made and used in the UK with asbestos are:

  • Insulation.
  • Cement sheets.
  • Asbestos cloth.
  • Fireproofing materials.
  • Siding.
  • Roofing shingles.
  • Flooring tiles.
  • Wallboard.
  • Clutches and brakes in cars.
  • Ovens, stoves, and other kitchen appliances.
  • Furnaces and wood-burning stoves.
  • Many materials that went into ships.

People at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Nearly every type of trade in the UK before the 1980s put workers at risk of being exposed to asbestos. Some were more at risk than others, though, including workers in shipbuilding and ship repair. As in the U.S. asbestos was heavily used throughout both civilian and military ships, in boilers, insulation, fireproofing, protective gear, and more.

Other examples of workers in the UK who were and still are at an increased risk for asbestos exposure include construction workers, carpenters, plasterers, roofers, demolition workers, HVAC repairmen and installers, painters, maintenance workers, teachers, pipefitters, plumbers, electricians, joiners, and boilermakers.

Because so many buildings in the UK contain asbestos, it is not just workers who may be exposed. Anyone who works in an older building or lives in a home built before 2000 could be exposed to asbestos. Exposure risks increase when repair, maintenance, and renovation work is being done on one of these buildings.

UK Asbestos Regulations and Laws

Early laws relating to asbestos in the UK did not ban or limit its use but did aim to protect workers. In 1969, the Asbestos Regulations were designed to control asbestos exposure on jobsites but may have had limited impact. The law was changed in 1993 and 2002 to require companies use safer substitutes for asbestos where available and that workplaces identify where asbestos is located.

The first laws regulating and limiting asbestos in the UK were not written until the mid-1980s. The first law, in 1985, banned the use and the import of blue and brown asbestos. In 1992, most white asbestos was banned, and in 1999 all white, or chrysotile, asbestos was banned. In the 1990s a new law stated that asbestos insulation work had to be done by licensed and trained asbestos professionals. Laws also provided for maximum exposure limits on job sites and training for any workers at risk of being exposed.

In 2006 the country passed the Control of Asbestos Regulations Act, which combined all previous laws into one and put a ban on using and important all types of asbestos. Existing asbestos can remain in place if it is undisturbed, but there are no new uses of asbestos allowed thanks to this law.

In 2012 the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 went into effect and updated earlier regulations related to asbestos based on criticisms from the European Commission that the UK was not implementing all necessary safety rules. It included the requirement that non-licensed asbestos work must include a notification, record keeping, and medical surveillance by a doctor.

Asbestos and Mesothelioma Compensation and Lawsuits

Workers and others affected by asbestos in the UK have had to fight for justice and compensation. Civil lawsuits brought by victims and their families are sometimes successful, but many people struggle to make their case. One reason is that the latency period for mesothelioma is decades long, and by the time a person is sick, remembering the details of workplace exposure is challenging. It is also hard to trace an insurer from so long ago.

In 2012 the government tried to compensate for these difficulties by establishing a new payment scheme. Insurers contribute to a pool of money and victims can draw from that. The only issue is that the payments are usually only 80 percent of what the victim would get if they had gone through a civil lawsuit. In 2014, the compensation amount increased from £115,000 to £123,000.

There have been several successful lawsuits for those victims who chose to go through the courts to get compensation. In one notable and large recent case, more than 6,000 families fought four large insurance companies that were trying to minimize asbestos compensation. The families won, and the companies may have to pay as much as £600 million.

Mesothelioma Treatment Centers in the UK

Because of the relatively large number of diagnoses of mesothelioma in the UK, there are several locations where patients can get specialty care. One of the most reputable cancer treatments in the country, which does offer mesothelioma care, is the Royal Marsden Hospital. It has locations in both Surrey and London. Royal Marsden is one of the oldest cancer hospitals in the world and offers specialty and multi-disciplinary care for mesothelioma patients.

Other locations in the UK where victims of asbestos exposure can get care from specialists include the London Lung Cancer Center at London Bridge Hospital, The London Chest Hospital, The Christie Hospital in Manchester, Glenfield Hospital in Leicester, Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, and St. Bartholomew’s and Guy’s Hospital, both in London. London is an important center for mesothelioma care, and it is important for victims to be able to get there for expert treatment.

Workers and residents in the United Kingdom have been victims of asbestos exposure, just as people in the U.S. have. For these people, though, the laws designed to protect and compensate, came a decade and more later. Victims of asbestos exposure in the UK now face serious illness, the need for specialty care, and a battle for compensation. People in the UK are still at risk of being exposed and need to be aware of where asbestos is and how to stay protected from it.

Page edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.

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