Barrow asbestos death rates now at highest in the country

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A Generic Illustration of lung cancer. Picture credit: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos.
A Generic Illustration of lung cancer. Picture credit: PA Photo/Thinkstockphotos.
25 August 2015 11:25AM

SHOCKING new figures reveal more people are dying of asbestos-related lung cancer in Barrow than anywhere else in England and Wales.

Barrow now officially has the highest rate of mortality for mesothelioma across the two countries - with the death rate now sitting at three and a half times the national average.

The statistics have led campaigners to call for more help for sick and dying workers as they battle against the rare cancer - linked to working with the now prohibited substance.

Bob Pointer, of the Barrow Asbestos-related Disease Support Group, said the number of cases occurring in the town continues to rise.

He said: "You hear that the numbers of people affected is no longer going up but that's not what we are seeing.

"It's a very nasty disease.

"The past 10 years since the group was set up have been interesting. It's been one step forward and half a dozen back.

"But we are still here for people as they are diagnosed and that is still happening here all the time."

Barrow now has a rate of 14.3 deaths per 100,000 people compared to an average for England and Wales of 4.4.

It means a total of 49 people have died as a direct result of mesothelioma in the town between 2010 and 2014 - the most recent period for which statistics are available.

Dr Helen Clayson, chairwoman of Cumbria Asbestos-Related Disease Support and former medical director at St Mary's Hospice, Ulverston, said it could be construed as good news in one respect, as Barrow was once "six or seven times" above the national average.

But ultimately it shows the problem is persisting - and affecting people in different professions. 

She said: "It hasn't gone away, it's not historical. And although the shipyard and heavy engineering were undoubtedly the occupational cause behind Barrow's problems in the past. 

"What we're seeing - and this is repeated across the country - is whereas those cases are getting fewer and fewer, the people that are now increasingly effected are the skilled tradesmen who work on buildings, because so many of our old buildings contain asbestos.

"So we're seeing it in people like carpenters, joiners, electricians, plumbers and people that work in the demolition business and even people like firefighters who work with buildings that are damaged. 

"So although the numbers due to shipyard causes are dropping because of the asbestos ban in 1999, and even before that the shipyard realised and started taking regulation seriously, it's not going away. 

"And we're seeing an increasing number of school teachers die from asbestos cancer because over half our schools have got asbestos in.

"So we really need some action to try and address this problem as not being historical - it's changing, but it's still with us."

Jonathan Wheeler, president of the non-profit group the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, which campaigns for the rights of exposed workers and their families, said: “Thankfully, employers nowadays are more aware of the dangers of exposing workers to asbestos.

“But those who were exposed 30 or 40 years ago are now facing death sentences for simply turning up for work.” 

Asbestos, commonly used in the shipbuilding industry and in older construction methods, was finally banned in the UK in 1999. 

Exposure to the chemical can have a dormancy time of between 15 and 50 years before resulting in the rare malignant lung disease - which accounts for the rising numbers of cases appearing in recent times. 

Other badly hit regions include North Tyneside and South Tyneside.

Mr Wheeler said the criteria allowing victims to make a claim to the fund was too narrow. “There is now a government fund of last resort for them to turn to but it doesn’t quite go far enough," he said. 

“It needs to be extended to include other asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis, so that other suffering workers can get the justice they need and deserve.”

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