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Asbestos hits a new generation

By Andy Hosken
Today Programme

Mary Artherton
I know the prognosis was very poor and it just frightened me, completely
Mary Artherton
A rising number of nurses, doctors and teachers are among the 4,000 people a year who are dying from the effects of asbestos, according to campaigners who are calling for a central government survey of asbestos in public buildings.

Mary Artherton, a 60-year-old former nurse from Norwich, contracted mesothelioma, a type of cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs, as a result of sustained exposure to asbestos in three local hospitals.

She said being told she had mesothelioma came as a complete shock.

"I was absolutely horrified when I heard the news - I'd nursed people with mesothelioma in the past. I know the prognosis was very poor and it just frightened me, completely."

"I'd nursed in the hospital all those years and had no idea there was asbestos there," she said.

Containing exposure

Earlier this year, the East of England Strategic Health Authority admitted liability and paid her and a second nurse - who has also developed the cancer - compensation.

She said she has heard about more and more healthcare professionals developing mesothelioma and the government needs to act more quickly to remove asbestos.

"They fob us off with the reasoning that it's going to be more difficult and it's going to expose more to people to do it. But if you do it in a safe controlled way, it doesn't matter," she says.

"It's not right that individuals should be exposed to [asbestos] in the very places that they work and are being nursed for other diseases."

Adrian Budgen, Head of Asbestos Disease Litigation for a firm of Sheffield solicitors Irwin Mitchell, said he is seeing a new generation of people who have developed asbestos illnesses and it is no longer just those who worked in heavy industry.

Asbestos fibres under the microscope
Asbestos fibres under a microscope. 50 micron is equivalent to 0.005cms
"I've sadly represented a consultant surgeon who developed mesothelioma in his mid 40s, and other healthcare professionals who have been affected, and similarly we're seeing teachers who have been exposed in schools as well."

Some of the workmen who put the asbestos in schools and hospitals are also concerned.

"It's genuinely hidden away but, you know, there's areas where it's been messed around with and it becomes airborne and it's dragged into the corridors," said Jimmy Parish, a lagger from Hornchurch, London.

Unknown risk

Michael Lees, whose wife Gina was a teacher before she died from mesothelioma eight years ago, said asbestos poses a risk to both teachers and pupils. He is calling for the government to conduct a national survey of asbestos in public buildings.

"If cumulatively you're exposed to low levels and I do mean, even drawing pins, if that happens on a frequent basis, then there is a risk. But at the moment they don't know who is at risk and who isn't."

The Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association (ATAC) is also calling for the government to establish a central register of all asbestos in public buildings.

"Asbestos is killing 4000 people a year at the moment so we do need to look at making some fundamental steps to try and avoid those statistics being present in the future," said John Richards, from the ATAC.

Asbestos being produced
Asbestos was widely used between the 1950s and 1980s
"In an ideal world we'd have a national risk register where we could identify the schools, the hospitals, the domestic properties that had high risk asbestos materials in them, and then get some sort of programme in place to start removing those sorts of products," he added.

The government and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have resisted calls for a national register, saying much of the information is already publicly available and that in the vast majority of cases, the material is well-monitored and maintained.

According to statistics gathered by the HSE, 183 teachers and lecturers died from mesothelioma between 1980 and 2000, but the cancer claimed 76 deaths in the four year period between 2002 and 2005. There is a similar increase in the smaller number of nurses' deaths, from 49 between 1980 and 2000 to 25 in the four years between 2002 and 2005.

Steve Coldrick, director of the Disease Reduction programme for the HSE, said that not all mesotheliomas arise from asbestos exposure, but it was important to look at the case history of individuals to see if there was an association with asbestos.

"Teachers, nurses and others are no different in the incidents rate than other totally unconnected professions such as cleaners, care assistants, receptionists and librarians," he added.

Government action

One public building which may well be evacuated by its occupants in 2012 while its asbestos is removed is the Houses of Parliament.

Personal injuries lawyer Adrian Budgen said it is a case of double standards.

Asbestos roof insulation
Buildings built before 2000 are likely to contain asbestos in some form
"I think it's deeply ironic that the House of Commons is going to be closed down for quite a long period of time to have asbestos removed when ministers aren't prepared to engage in a public debate about the problem of asbestos in schools, when children, we know, are particularly susceptible and that issue should be taken very seriously," he said.

Ms Atherton agreed: "They're looking after their own aren't they!"

She wants the government to act to save lives.

"I'm frustrated I suppose because I have a new grandchild, there are lots of things I would loved to have done. To be able to take him out, I'm missing all that.

"Our children are our future - what more could you want? We need to remove [asbestos] as soon as possible."


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