Asbestos and lung cancer

As many as 20 tradespeople a week could be dying from asbestos damage to their lungs, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says.  

Even though asbestos is now banned, people working in the construction industries, maintenance or demolition could still come into contact with asbestos dust, putting their health in danger. Exposure to asbestos is a risk, whether tradespeople are working on domestic or industrial premises.

The HSE estimates that tradespeople could encounter asbestos 100 times a year. It has launched the "Beware Asbestos" campaign, which aims to stem the rising number of asbestos-related deaths. 

Diseases caused by contact with asbestos include mesothelioma (a type of cancer that affects the membrane around the lung) and asbestos-related lung cancer.

Many asbestos-related deaths are among tradespeople, such as electricians, builders, plasterers and plumbers, or people working in construction industries like shipbuilding or insulation. The death rate among this group is increasing.

It can take 20-50 years for mesothelioma to develop, so it is usually diagnosed when it is already at an advanced stage. People who worked in construction decades ago may still develop mesothelioma when they are much older.

There is no link between mesothelioma and smoking, but smokers who have also been exposed to asbestos have a greater risk of lung cancer than smokers who haven’t.

The asbestos risk

According to the HSE, many workers, especially tradespeople, 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. Opening a window or drinking a glass of water will not protect you against the dangers of asbestos.

“We need to educate tradespeople 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. 

How to protect yourself from asbestos

You can find out more on the HSE web pages on asbestos, where there is also a free asbestos web app to help tradespeople identify where they could come into contact with asbestos in their day-to-day work. 

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.
  • You can't work with some kinds of asbestos, as they're too dangerous. 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.
  • 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.

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, 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 this asbestos-related cancer. However, treatments including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery can prolong life and improve symptoms.

More info and support for people with mesothelioma

You may be able to claim compensation if you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma. Macmillan Cancer Support has more information on financial help and compensation for people with mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma UK offers information and support through their free helpline. Call 0800 169 2409 or email Mesothelioma UK. They also have information on legal issues and lists of support groups for people with asbestos-related diseases.

Page last reviewed: 20/04/2015

Next review due: 20/04/2017

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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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