How a few minutes of DIY can cost your life years later: Hidden asbestos in homes putting millions at risk from deadly lung disease
01:43 GMT, 28 August 2012
Dr Geoffrey Newton, aged 81, died from mesothelioma
Geoffrey Newton had always prided himself on his DIY skills.
Even aged 81, he was fitting a new kitchen and bathroom in his home.
‘Over the years he’d done everything from building a boat to converting an old school house into our home,’ says his wife Pat, 82, a former GP.
‘He was brilliant at DIY. Nothing was ever too much of a challenge.’
Unfortunately, it was this passion that most likely led to Mr Newton’s death in May.
He was suffering from mesothelioma — cancer of the lining of the lungs — caused by exposure to asbestos.
Experts say that even a few hours’ exposure to the toxic fibres can be enough to trigger the condition later in life.
And a few hours was all it had taken for Mr Newton, a leading orthopaedic surgeon, to remove an old central heating boiler packed with white asbestos from his house in Burton-on-Trent.
‘It was 37 years ago, but I still remember all the white dust that came out with it,’ says Pat.
‘At the time, it was known that brown and blue asbestos (there are three types) were dangerous, but not white, so we assumed the dust was harmless.
‘But it’s the only occasion we can think of that Geoffrey was exposed to it, so that must have been the trigger.’
While asbestos has left a cruel legacy for families such as the Newtons, experts are warning it is still very much a risk, mainly due to thousands of homeowners who could unwittingly disturb asbestos while embarking on home renovations.
The number of people dying each year from mesothelioma has nearly quadrupled in the past 30 years.
The Department of Health estimates deaths will peak in 2016 because the danger of asbestos became widely known only in the mid-Seventies, and the time lag between exposure and diagnosis is, typically, 30 to 40 years.
Crucially, with asbestos remaining in millions of buildings across the country, many of us are still exposing ourselves to asbestos without realising it, says Dr John Moore-Gillon, an honorary medical adviser to the British Lung Foundation (BLF).
Risk: Thousands of homeowners could unwittingly disturb asbestos while embarking on home renovations
‘Many people think that because asbestos stopped being used in industry many years ago, it’s no longer an issue,’ he says.
‘The problem today is that people can disturb asbestos in their homes without realising it is there.
‘They embark on DIY projects — or hire a few local lads to do some demolition work without an initial survey — and unwittingly expose everyone to it.
‘Cases will continue to rise if precautions aren’t taken.
'What is worrying is that we barely have the resources to treat the condition, so if numbers continue to rise then there could be a huge strain in terms of treating everyone.’
The BLF says asbestos was widely used in commercial buildings and homes until 1999, when it was banned, so any home built or refurbished before this date could contain asbestos.
‘We don’t want to cause panic,’ says Dr Moore-Gillon.
‘It’s not the case that one fibre will kill you or that having a house with asbestos will put you at risk. It’s disturbing the asbestos that’s the problem.
‘Usually, if it is found, the right thing is to seal it away and leave it alone.
'If the area needs to be demolished, then it can be — but with appropriate precautions.’
Accordingly, the British Lung Foundation has launched a campaign, Take 5 To Stay Alive, urging the public to take five minutes to consider whether asbestos could be an issue before embarking on any work.
Christine Winter, of the Independent Asbestos Training Providers, which champions safety and awareness when working with asbestos, adds: ‘I am amazed at how many people have absolutely no knowledge of the danger they place themselves in when they start renovations.’
And, cautions the BLF, don’t assume trades-people know about asbestos and the risks. If you are the homeowner, you have a responsibility to protect them from exposure to fibres.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral.
Large-scale mining during the late 19th century allowed industries such as construction and shipbuilding to take advantage of its affordability, sound absorption and fire and heat resistance.
It became most popular as a building material in the Fifties, finding its way into ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, boilers, sprayed coatings, water tanks, and floor and garage roof tiles.
The dangers of asbestos to lung health began to be established from the Forties, but only became widely known in the late Seventies.
Mesothelioma has a strong association with exposure to asbestos fibres, and is extremely rare in its absence.
The disease affects the lining of the lungs and is almost always fatal, with survival from point of diagnosis usually between six months and three years.
There were more than 2,300 deaths from mesothelioma in Britain in 2009 — more than from cervical cancer or malignant melanoma — and the incidence is still rising due to the 30 to 40-year time lag between exposure and disease development.
Exposure to asbestos fibres can also cause lung cancer. It develops in the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs, and can grow within the lungs and spread outside.
‘Asbestos fibres are very small and easy to inhale, and once in the lungs they seem to alter the way in which cells multiply and divide,’ says Dr Moore-Gillon.
‘It’s probable that asbestos alters DNA and increases the likelihood of producing cells of abnormal structure and function. ’
Men account for 80 per cent of mesothelioma cases. It is less common in women because they don’t tend to work in industry.
Smoking increases the risk of developing an asbestos-related cancer by up to 75 times.
Symptoms of the disease include breathlessness, pains in the chest and a persistent cough.
‘The overwhelming majority will not be signs of mesothelioma, but it’s always worth mentioning to your doctor if you have — or suspect you may have — come into contact with asbestos,’ says Dr Moore-Gillon.
There is no cure, though early diagnosis can increase the possibility of being able to use surgery to tackle the cancer.
Other treatments include chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but these are largely to keep symptoms under control for as long as possible.
Geoffrey Newton lived 18 months after his diagnosis.
‘It was all very quick,’ says his widow Pat.
‘He developed breathlessness, which turned out to be pleural effusion — a build-up of fluid in the lungs. From there mesothelioma was diagnosed.
‘He started off saying he wanted to book a train to Switzerland (to the Dignitas clinic), but then calmed down and did very well for 18 months after his diagnosis.
‘He even insisted on fitting the kitchen and bathroom before he died. Even though he was frail, he got our daughter Sarah, who’s 37, to help with the heavy lifting.
‘It was all incredibly bad luck. We have friends who worked as ships engineers and were heavily exposed to it, but they are fine.’
Many people who have been exposed unwittingly may seek compensation, but such cases are fraught legally, says Christine Winter.
‘The problem lies in the proof of where the individual was exposed to asbestos, because of the long latency period before the consequences present.
‘If work-related, the employer may no longer be trading or may not have had insurance for asbestos exposure.
'This will have a massive health impact in the future unless we can get the message across that the dangers of asbestos still exist.’
Someone else who knows all too well of its impact is Mavis Nye, from Whitstable, Kent.
In the early Sixties, her husband Ray was a shipwright in Chatham dockyards, and she would wash his clothes when he came home.
‘They were always covered in asbestos dust — we used to joke he looked like a snowman when he came through the door,’ says Mavis, 71.
‘We had no idea how lethal it was.’
Fed up of working in a dusty environment, Ray left the dockyard in 1963.
Years later, with knowledge of how lethal asbestos was, the couple feared for Ray’s health. But, in fact, it was Mavis who became unwell.
‘We were on holiday in Spain in 2009 when I felt very tired and breathless walking up a hill that I’d normally have no problems with,’ she says.
Back home, her GP arranged an immediate chest X-ray, and Mavis was called back to the hospital for scans.
‘And then, boom — I was told I had mesothelioma and given three months to live.
'I came home, arranged my funeral, threw out most of my clothes and bought new things for the house so Ray wouldn’t have to deal with it all.’
Mavis has survived three years, which she attributes to large doses of chemotherapy.
Her tumours have shrunk, and she can have further chemotherapy if they begin to grow again.
‘It’s sometimes hard to breathe — there’s a tightness across my chest — but I’m still active,’ she says.
Ray, 74, adds: ‘Not a day goes by when I don’t wish it was the other way round.’
To follow Mavis and Ray’s blog, visit rayandmave.org.uk.
For more information about asbestos, visit: blf.org.uk/asbestos and take 5andstayalive.com
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELFAny home built or refurbished before
2000 could contain asbestos. It can be found in ceiling and garage roof
tiles, pipe lagging, boilers, sprayed coatings and cavity-wall
insulation. Other common areas are around window frames. To
protect yourself during a DIY project, wear overalls, eye protection and
a face mask — especially if your job is likely to produce dust. But
asbestos fibres are small enough to penetrate most masks, so never
assume you’re safe. Dust can also settle on clothing, which could be a
serious health risk to everyone you come into contact with. Asbestos comes in all shapes, sizes and colours (blue, brown and white),
which are found in many building products. But as it was often mixed
with other materials, it can be hard to spot. The Health & Safety
Executive has produced an image gallery of typical asbestos-containing
materials. Go to hse.gov.uk/asbestos/gallery.htmAsbestos materials
in good condition are not a health risk and should be fine if you leave
them alone. Simply check their condition from time to time to ensure
they haven’t started to deteriorate. If you have to remove asbestos,
it’s essential you use a reputable, licensed contractor to handle and
dispose of it properly.If you are worried that you might have been
exposed to asbestos, contact the British Lung Foundation Helpline on
03000 030 555.