Asbestos is not just a historical problem

Asbestos-related disease often doesn't appear until decades, after exposure to the dust. Picture: Esme Allen
Asbestos-related disease often doesn't appear until decades, after exposure to the dust. Picture: Esme Allen
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Too many victims are still in need of our help, says James Cant

Scotland’s industrial history was given pride of place at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. And rightly so, because perhaps nothing else has played a more influential role in defining our nation’s history and society. And although much of Scotland’s heavy industry has now gone, we rightly celebrate it, remembering the bonds it formed in our communities.

Yet, that history brought with it a terrible legacy of industrial disease that has persisted long after the shipyards, coal mines and steel works have gone. Thousands of young workers were exposed to asbestos in shipyards and on building sites. At the time little was known of the dangers and the material was used freely, often without protection, in a whole host of heavy industries. Former workers even tell stories about having snowball fights with the stuff. But this isn’t a story from Scotland’s past. This is very much a story unfolding across Scotland today. The effects of that exposure are here with us in Scotland today and have an appalling impact on those who are affected. This is because asbestos-related disease often doesn’t appear until decades, after exposure to the dust.

Perhaps the best known asbestos-related disease is mesothelioma. This is a form of cancer that appears usually in the lining of the lung. It can be difficult to detect and is, at the moment, extremely hard to treat effectively. Most often, it doesn’t develop until person affected is in their 50s, 60s or 70s, often several decades after they worked with asbestos. There’s currently no cure and mesothelioma patients often have a short life expectancy – fewer than 10 per cent of those diagnosed survive just three years after diagnosis.

The UK has the highest rate of mesothelioma in the world, and West Dunbartonshire has the highest rate of any council in the UK. And that rate is not coming down. This year it’s estimated that more than 2,500 people will die of the disease, most of whom having been innocently exposed to asbestos in the workplace. Over the next 30 years, around 60,000 people will die of mesothelioma in the UK unless new treatments are found.

Despite this, mesothelioma research receives a fraction of the funds invested in cancers that kill a similar number of people and less than a tenth of the funding per death of leukaemia.

The insurance industry already pays out millions each year in compensation to people living with mesothelioma or their bereaved loved ones. The future cost of compensation pay outs is expected to exceed £11 billion. Even a tiny fraction of that amount could revolutionise mesothelioma research in this country, finding the treatments patients desperately need.

And while there’s no doubt that the multibillion pound global insurance industry can afford it, this idea is more than a simple Robin Hood principle of taking from the rich to help those in need. With meso patients living longer as a result of better treatments, the amount of compensation the industry would have to pay out would be greatly reduced. Saving lives could potentially save millions – a win-win.

The UK economy may be growing again, but as politicians are always keen to remind us, public finances are still tight. The Scottish Government has led the way over the last decade in ensuring that people affected by exposure to asbestos receive financial compensation. But it would be so much better if fewer people needed compensation at all.

Financial support for new research from the insurance industry would play a vital role in this process. Of course there will be economic benefits: boosting our research industry, saving insurers money, and all without burdening the tax-payer. But the most profound difference will be for those living with mesothelioma and their families. It will give them something most of them dare not have before: hope. It’s up to the UK government to work with insurers to have them contribute to this life-changing research. Surely that’s something we can all buy into.

• James Cant is head of British Lung Foundation Scotland. Support the BLF campaign to fund mesothelioma research by e-mailing your MP at


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