Asbestos and lung cancer

Former England footballer Ian Wright is supporting a campaign to reduce the rising number of deaths from asbestos-related disease.

The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE's) campaign, Asbestos: The Hidden Killer, has revealed that 20 tradesmen a week in the UK die from asbestos damage to their lungs. Workers are still being exposed to the substance even though it’s been banned. 

Exposure to asbestos is the biggest single cause of work-related deaths in the UK. Around 4,000 people a year die from asbestos-related disease. These diseases include mesothelioma, a type of cancer that affects the membrane around the lung, and the same type of lung cancer associated with smoking.

Many of these deaths are among tradesmen, such as electricians, builders, plasterers and plumbers. The death rate among this group is increasing.

“When I was told that 20 workmen are dying each week in the UK from asbestos-related diseases, I was staggered,” says Ian.

“It really hit home, as I used to work in the building trade as a plasterer before my football career took off. If there were 20 premiership players dying each week, we would have no league in just three months.” 

The asbestos risk

According to the HSE, many workers, particularly tradesmen, assume they're not at risk because asbestos was banned many years ago. However, as asbestos remains in many buildings it is still a risk to workers, even today.

Asbestos is likely to be present in any building constructed or refurbished before the year 2000. An estimated half a million buildings contain it.  

If a building containing asbestos is repaired or maintained and the asbestos fibres are disturbed, for instance, by drilling or cutting, they can easily be inhaled as a deadly dust. 

“We need to educate tradesmen about how asbestos and its dangers are relevant to them. We want them to change the way they work so that they don’t put their lives at risk,” says Steve Coldrick, director of the HSE’s Disease Reduction Programme. 

Mesothelioma: Tom’s story

Tom King, 64, developed mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos in his job as a carpenter.

He renovated domestic houses, which involved knocking ceilings and walls down to convert houses into flats. He removed any asbestos found during the work and threw it into skips for removal. He had no training on how to handle it.

“I wasn’t aware of the danger of asbestos,” says Tom. “If I’d known about it, I would have put a mask on or I would have refused to handle it.”

After experiencing chest pains and breathlessness in 2006, he went to visit his doctor, who referred him for a chest X-ray and other lung tests. Tom was diagnosed with mesothelioma.

There is no cure for the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma. However, treatments including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery can prolong life and improve symptoms.

How to protect yourself from asbestos

If you think you might be exposed to asbestos in your work, or you want to find out more, phone the HSE’s asbestos helpline on 0845 345 0055, or visit www.hse.gov.uk/hiddenkiller for a free information pack. The pack has facts about the dangers of asbestos. It explains where asbestos-containing materials are likely to be present in buildings, what they look like and how to deal with them. 

HSE has the following advice to workers who may be exposed to asbestos: 

  • Avoid working with asbestos wherever possible. If you're not sure whether asbestos is present, don't start work. Your boss or the customer should tell you whether or not asbestos is present.
  • Don't work if the asbestos material present is a sprayed coating, board, or lagging on pipes and boilers. Only a licensed contractor should work on these. You can't work with some kinds of asbestos as they're too dangerous.
  • Where asbestos is present, you can only continue to work if you’ve had asbestos training and you're using the right equipment.
  • To minimise asbestos dust, use hand tools instead of power tools, and keep materials damp but not wet. Clean up as you go, using a special (class H) vacuum cleaner (not a brush). Double-bag asbestos waste and label the bags properly.
  • When working with asbestos, always wear a proper mask. Ordinary dust masks are not effective.

Page last reviewed: 16/05/2013

Next review due: 16/05/2015

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Asbestos

The four main diseases caused by asbestos are mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and plural plaque. In this video, an expert explains the dangers of contact with asbestos, who is most at risk of exposure and what precautions to take.

Media last reviewed: 06/08/2014

Next review due: 06/08/2016

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