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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 May, 2004, 01:47 GMT 02:47 UK
'Asbestosis ruined my life'
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News Online health staff

John Flaherty
John Flaherty was exposed to asbestos for years
John Flaherty looked forward to an enjoyable, healthy retirement, but his hopes were dashed when he was diagnosed with asbestosis at 65.

He has breathing difficulties, cannot walk far and has not been on holiday for six years because poor health limits his mobility.

Only now are statistics revealing the full extent of the dangers of prolonged exposure to asbestos in working environments.

New regulations which become law next week will force employers to ensure staff are protected from asbestos in the work place - especially building and maintenance workers who might disturb material containing the dangerous substance.

John Flaherty's exposure to asbestos began when, as a teenager in 1949, he started his apprenticeship as a plumber.

He spent the next 15 years installing and repairing boilers and central heating systems, where asbestos was commonly used as a heat-resistant material.

No-one was saying a word in the 60s about the dangers of asbestos
John Flaherty, former plumber
Even during his national service in the 1950s, his plumbing skills were put to use in army boiler houses.

He returned to plumbing when he left the army and then began a career in education in his 30s, but he still dabbled in heating system repairs - with further exposure to asbestos fibres.

It was not until the 1980s that the use of asbestos was outlawed.

Seventy-year-old John, who comes from Liverpool, said: "No-one was saying a word in the 60s about the dangers of asbestos.

"When I was a plumber, I used to come home with it all over my clothes.

"I would dust myself down in the back yard and it would just float in the air."

John's wife Mary, 67, would also have been exposed to the dust particles when she gathered together his clothes for washing.

Sport enthusiast

She now suffers from emphysema - a disease usually associated with smoking - but has never touched a cigarette in her life.

John was a sport enthusiast in his 30s and 40s. He was a football referee and played badminton twice a week until his late 50s.

He said: "My retirement has been destroyed. Neither my wife, nor I can walk up stairs and we have not been on holiday for six years.

Mary Flaherty
Mary Flaherty has emphysema
"We used to love going walking in the Lake District and Austria, but can't do it any more."

He is philosophical about his condition - which is caused by asbestos dust and fibres scarring the lung tissue - and refuses to let it get him down.

John said: "You have got to accept it and live with it and hope that it doesn't accelerate into mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the chest and lungs)."

He is a trustee for the Merseyside Victims of Asbestos Support Group and he tries to get out and about as much as possible, but his breathing difficulties associated with asbestosis, mean he has to walk slowly and needs to take a break every couple of minutes.

He knows there is no cure for his disease and he has shunned steroid drug treatment - so his medical "treatment" amounts to regular monitoring of his condition.

Asbestos legacy

Asbestos-related diseases claim the lives of about 5,000 people every year in the UK, and the substance is known to cause cancer, asbestosis and other types of lung disease.

Asbestos diseases are caused by inhaling asbestos dust, a mineral commonly used in the construction industry until the 1980s.

Thousands of people were exposed to asbestos in the 1950s, 60s and 70s - mainly builders, plumbers and shipyard workers.

The material was widely used as an insulator in buildings and industry until its health risks became known.

The new regulations are about saving the lives of both workers and the public and we will not hesitate to report duty holders who fail to have an asbestos management plan in place
Kim Sunley, safety officer, GMB union
The use of blue and brown asbestos - the two most dangerous forms - was banned in 1985 and white asbestos was banned (except for a small number of specialised uses) in 1999.

Although huge amounts of asbestos have been removed over the years, there are many thousands of tonnes of asbestos still present in buildings.

It is estimated that more than 500,000 non-domestic premises currently contain some form of asbestos.

In the future, these buildings will require repair and removal work, which is why the new regulations are being introduced.

Effective compliance with the "Duty to Manage" regulations will save the lives of about 5,000 people over the next 50 years, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Union action

The GMB union has welcomed the regulations but is concerned they may not be adhered to through ignorance, neglect or a lack of money.

A survey carried out in August 2003 by Zurich Risk Services - a financial services organisation - found two-thirds of UK companies had no plans in place to manage the risks associated with asbestos at work.

The GMB has produced a guide for its members to help them check their employers are taking appropriate action.

GMB Health and Safety officer Kim Sunley said: "The new regulations are about saving the lives of both workers and the public and we will not hesitate to report duty holders who fail to have an asbestos management plan in place within a reasonable time frame."

The HSE, which advises employers and property owners of their new responsibilities, said anyone responsible for commercial property must comply with the regulations.

If the asbestos is in good condition it should be left in place, but actions must be taken to warn maintenance workers not to disturb it.

The regulations come too late to help John Flaherty, but he fully supports them.

He said: "I feel we were never warned and I think people now have got to take it on board.

"It's a silent killer and people have to be protected from it."

Asbestos disease
08 Feb 03  |  A-B

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