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Last Updated: Monday, 1 November, 2004, 15:23 GMT
Asbestos claims 'could hit 20bn'
Surgeons examine a chest x-ray
Experts do not expect asbestos claims to peak for another 10 years
The cost of asbestos claims in the UK could reach 20bn in the next 30 years, research by an actuarial body has said.

The Actuarial Profession warned only half the cost will be met by insurers, with the government having to foot the rest of the bill.

The research, the first of its kind in the UK, was based on new data collected by the group from major UK insurers.

"Asbestos is certainly not yesterday's problem," said Julian Lowe, who led the working party for the study.

"Its effects will continue to affect insurance companies and healthcare providers in the West for years to come," Mr Lowe added.

Claims to soar

Despite a sharp decline in asbestos use in the UK, claims are still coming forward, and, according to the study, will cost the UK between 8bn and 20bn in coming years.

Asbestos related diseases take approximately 30-40 years to manifest themselves, and as the material was still in use in the UK in the 1960s and 70s claimant numbers are set to reach their peak in about 10 years time.

Asbestos imports began in the UK in the 1880s, mainly for textile industry
It has been used extensively in over 3,000 commercially manufactured products including packing material and floor coverings
Asbestos Regulations, in 1969, set out the first quantative limits in the UK for asbestos dust exposure
According to a 2003 Health and Safety Executive report, asbestos related deaths will peak at 1,950-2,450 a year between 2011 and 2015

Mr Lowe added that the cost of claims increases depending on what type of asbestos-related disease the claimant has.

According to the study - carried out by the group which provides firms with commercial and financial advice for the future - asbestosis will decline over the period.

However, more than half of the claims are expected to come from people with mesothelioma - a terminal and incurable asbestos-related disease.

Making the situation more difficult still is the fact that employer liability insurance was only made compulsory in 1972.

So any claims relating to firms before that date may not be covered, or may even involve firms which are no longer in existence.

"People will have to claim against the companies, if they still exist. The problem is of course that, 30 or 40 years down the line, it's very tricky to find companies that might have gone out of business," Mr Lowe told BBC Radio Five Live.

"If you can't find the company there is a government compensation scheme, so a fair number of claims will end up being paid by the government"

Professions that are likely to be hardest hit by compensation claims in coming years are shipbuilding, construction and property maintenance, the report found.

Lessons to learn

A government compensation scheme is available for asbestos victims who cannot trace their previous employer.

More asbestos is used now in Asia than was used in America at its peak
Julian Lowe, Actuarial Profession

Meanwhile insurers need to be putting enough money aside to pay for any future claims, Mr Lowe said, something they have "hopefully" been doing.

The group also flagged up the fact that "the appalling demographic and social consequences" of asbestos use and manufacture will have the biggest effect on the developing world over the next 40 to 50 years.

"One of the most shocking things is that in the West, the use of asbestos has been declining since about 1970, in Asia and Russia it has been going up," Mr Lowe explained.

"More asbestos is used now in Asia than was used in America at its peak. Take China for example, a huge amount of construction and they're using most of the asbestos in the world - more than America ever did."

As a result of the findings the group has called on the international community to help such nations "learn the lessons" of Western Europe and America.

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