Asbestos: Calls for awareness over exposure-related deaths in Northern Ireland

By Niall McCracken
BBC News NI

  • Published
Media caption,

A bereaved family are searching for answers around their father's asbestos-related death

A bereaved family are calling for more awareness of the risks of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos was used in building materials until it was discovered that inhalation of fibres could cause cancers.

It can still be found in any building built before the year 2000 but is only considered dangerous when moved or disturbed.

There were more than 800 asbestos-related deaths in NI between 2009 and 2020.

The latest figures come as BBC News NI has spoken to a family from County Down who are still searching for answers around their father's death from cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

It has also emerged that the number of asbestos deaths increased by almost 60% in Northern Ireland in 2020 compared to 2019.

The Public Health Agency said the higher number of asbestos deaths in 2020 is due to natural variation in the data.

Annual asbestos deaths have been increasing over the past 50 years, largely as a result of asbestos exposure prior to 1980.

The Health and Safety Executive said asbestos-related diseases could take years to develop and "current figures reflect the legacy of past working conditions".

A spokesperson added that deaths "should decrease from the end of the decade" because two types of asbestos were banned in 1986 and the last type was banned in 1999.

Northern Ireland's coroner believes improvements in methods of diagnosing could also be leading to more asbestos-related diseases being listed on death certificates.

Meanwhile a professor of public health at Ulster University said the Covid-19 pandemic may have had an impact on the number of deaths.

Long-term, high-level exposure is needed to cause asbestosis and long-term, low-level inhalation exposure may cause lung disorders, mesothelioma or lung cancer.

Health authorities say mesothelioma has such a strong relationship with asbestos exposure that annual deaths give a particularly clear view of the effect of past exposures.

It is almost always fatal and the symptoms can take decades to develop and cases are often diagnosed late in the development of the disease.

Image caption,
Niall McGonigle, a thoracic consultant and member of the clinical expert panel of Mesothelioma UK

Niall McGonigle, a thoracic consultant in the Belfast Trust and member of the clinical expert panel of Mesothelioma UK, said the condition is "a devastating diagnosis" and that it is common for people to not know when they were exposed to asbestos.

"The lag period is the problem because the diseases related to asbestos can take 30 or 40 years to become apparent, unfortunately it's why some patients are left wondering where and when exposure occurred," he said.

'He was an incredible daddy'

Tony Rodgers had worked as a social worker all his life and trained Labradors as a hobby.

In July 2017, at the age of 60, he began experiencing shortness of breath while out on walks.

He was diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Image source, Rodgers family
Image caption,
Tony Rodgers had worked as a social worker all his life

His daughter Niamh Rodgers was shocked when she found out that this type of cancer was almost always caused by exposure to asbestos.

She said: "It was awful, it was just life shattering. We didn't know how process it.

"With daddy's job as a social worker, it wasn't something where you would expect him to have come into contact with asbestos, although he was based in a number of old buildings down the years.

"Daddy said he had also worked on an old building site for about two months over a summer period back when he was a student at university, but there just wasn't enough information for doctors to pinpoint exposure."

Tony Rodgers passed away on New Year's Day 2022.

Image caption,
Niamh Rogers and her family are still searching for answers

His family want to raise awareness about the risks associated with asbestos.

Niamh added: "We don't know where daddy might have been exposed and that does make us angry because it could have been something that could have been prevented.

"But he was an incredible daddy and we just hope that by raising awareness - he would be proud that we're trying to help other families."

A public awareness campaign by the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) in recent years has highlighted the need for construction workers to ask for the asbestos register before doing any work on the fabric of a building.

The charity Mesothelioma UK said the risk to public health was only likely to increase as buildings were adapted with the move to net zero.

Figures for Northern Ireland show that cases where asbestos-related illnesses were the primary or secondary cause of death increased from 63 in 2019 to 99 in 2020.

Northern Ireland's Coroner Joe McCrisken said: "It is not possible to say with certainty, but the increase in reported deaths could be as a result of more accurate clinical information before death because of an increase in clinical expertise and the use of modern diagnostic equipment.

"It is also likely to be linked to historic working practices and widespread use of asbestos in the building trade before 1980 with little awareness of the long-term health implications."

The 2020 figures for Great Britain are not yet available.

But the number of asbestos deaths across Great Britain decreased from 2,960 in 2018 to 2,859 in 2019.

Mark Tully, professor of public health at Ulster University's school of medicine, believes the increase in asbestosis and mesothelioma deaths in 2020 could be connected to the pandemic.

"We know people with chronic lung conditions, such as lung cancers, had a higher risk of mortality from Covid-19, so it stands to reason this would impact asbestos patients," he said.

He added: "Also remember the health service was under considerable strain during the pandemic and a number of cancer services had to be re-organised.

"The NHS has been under-resourced for many years and Covid put it under even further pressure. So the treatment of asbestos patients, like others, will have been impacted."

The PHA said: "If you have, or develop, respiratory symptoms that you feel may be related to asbestos exposure, you should seek medical advice."

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