Each year more than 4,500 people die from asbestos-related diseases, a figure expected to rise to more than 10,000 deaths annually by 2020. With the historic shipbuilding city of Bristol identified as a big risk hotspot, Jon Lockett looks at claims the city could be sitting on an asbestos timebomb.
Hundreds are dying in Bristol because of asbestos – they just don’t know it yet
For more than 20 years Robert Base worked with asbestos.
Employed by a now defunct roofing firm, he regularly came into contact with the killer fibre.
But it didn’t just claim his life. His wife also fell victim.
Florence Base, who lived in Bedminster, died from mesothelioma, a tumour resulting from exposure to the material.
Robert died a year earlier, aged 69, from lung cancer. His wife contracted her tumour through cleaning his overalls.
She used to shake them out in the garden, creating clouds of dust before she washed them.
She breathed in the tiny fibres and they, in time, devastated her lungs.
Their story is typical of many across the country.
In the last four years more than 18,000 people have died as a result of working with asbestos – more than the number killed on the country’s roads.
No part of Britain is immune, but most victims live in areas traditionally associated with shipbuilding, manufacturing, and the docks.
Bristol has already been identified as one of the UK’s asbestos hotspots.
At its peak more than 1,300 used to work at Bristol shipyards. Many worked with the killer fibre day in, day out.
But, as the Evening Post reported earlier this week, despite the fact that 380 people have died in the Avon region since 1997, there isn’t a body set up to campaign for sufferers.
In Merseyside, Manchester and on the Clyde there are well-established support and advice groups campaigning for the rights of those suffering the effects of asbestos.
Asbestos, often used as a fire retardant, has for many years been known to cause the rate lung cancer mesothelioma, a scarring of lung tissue called asbestosis and other lung diseases.
But many of those struck down don’t find out they are suffering until years after they have stopped working with the material.
Former Bristol dock worker Brian Saunders was one of the thousands of city dockers who spent the 60s and 70s working with the killer substance.
But last year the 58-year-old father of three, who lives in Avonmouth, was told he had just two years to live.
He said: “There are hundreds of people in the city dying because of asbestos. The sufferers just don’t know it yet.
“I worked at the docks for 23 years, but I only discovered I had asbestosis in July and it has changed my life completely. It’s now very difficult to plan for the future.
“We were completely unaware of the dangers associated with asbestos. We didn’t give it a second thought.
“I used to come home plastered in the stuff. We would be covered from head to toe. I would even go down the pub after work and have a pint. Who knows how many people could now be suffering?”
Mr Saunders is now fighting for compensation, but like many is finding it virtually impossible as his old employers went to the wall years ago.
South West chest consultant Andrew Leonard said: “I think it is an outrage because clearly the employers who exposed these employees to asbestos have a moral obligation towards them.
“The majority of people who did work with asbestos worked for multiple employers, all of whom exposed them to asbestos.
“For these people to be unable to claim when they subsequently develop a serious illness seems to me to be quite outrageous.”
But asbestos is not just a legacy of our industrial past, according to TUC Regional Secretary Mick Connolly.
“The tragedy is that many more people who were exposed years ago will die whatever we do now. So for them our priority must be to get them the compensation they are rightly entitled to,” he said.
“And there are millions of tonnes of the fatal fibre still in cement sheets, lagging for pipes and boilers, brake linings and a host of other products.”
In a report released last year, the TUC called for a global ban on asbestos and a public register of the asbestos in buildings.
Mapping the Misery of Asbestos was dedicated to the hundreds of thousands who have lost their lives in the UK and the asbestos mines of South Africa, Canada, Zimbabwe and Russia.
The problems of asbestos in old buildings was hammered home last year when Bristol Prison had to be closed down twice.
In July, the Evening Post revealed that more than 70 inmates had been evacuated from the Horfield site after the killer substance was found in the basement. The prisoners were moved from D Wing. Dozens more lifers were switched to another part of the Bristol site.
Work to remove the asbestos, including the most dangerous blue and brown types, was completed in mid-August, allowing the prisoners to return to their cells. But just days later more of the substance was found in A and G wings and 200 inmates had to be transferred to other jails.
“Bristol Evening Post” 24th January 2002