March 31, 2017

Mesothelioma deaths still on the rise: expert examines key trends

Asbestos deaths still on the rise

The number of deaths from mesothelioma has been over 2,500 per year since 2012, and is expected to remain at that level until 2020. The anticipated decline is then expected to be at about the same rate as the increase, with the burden of asbestos-related deaths in 2030 being similar to that in the early 2000s.

Who is most at risk?

Men who worked in the building trade in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are most at risk of developing mesothelioma, with the highest rates of mesothelioma occurring in men aged over 75. At least 88% of mesotheliomas could be considered a result of occupational asbestos exposure, as more that 2,200 applications for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) were made for mesothelioma in 2014. IIDB is not payable to those who were exposed as a result of environmental exposure (e.g. living near asbestos factories) or exposure from other family members’ work clothes, or to those who were exposed in the armed forces before 1986, which may account for the difference between the number of mesothelioma deaths and the number of applications for IIDB.

The ratio of male to female deaths in 2014 was 5:1; however, the number of women dying from mesothelioma is still rising and not expected to peak for several more years. At the moment the predicted peak is anticipated to occur in 2026.

When and where did the exposure to asbestos occur?

The way data is collected and recorded can lead to difficulties in linking mesothelioma to occupational asbestos exposure. Only the last occupation, not the culpable occupation, is recorded on an individual’s death certificate. For instance, for a client of Industrial Diseases team who started his working life as a docker and lagger, but went on to become the head of a large insurance company, the death certificate provided no valuable information at all about where he was exposed to asbestos. The same applies to another client of ours, a young woman who died aged 31 having been exposed due to the fallout from a big fire at an MOD depot in Telford in the 1980s, or anyone exposed to asbestos at school as a child who goes on to develop mesothelioma decades later.

With women, the data is even more difficult to analyse because fewer women worked with asbestos directly, and although they may have been exposed at work, it is usually through the work of others – like a client of ours who was a receptionist for a firm who provided scaffolding equipment and contractors for power station refit work. The HSE believes that only a third of mesotheliomas for women are attributable to occupational or domestic exposure, with the exposure for the remaining two thirds not being readily identifiable.

Helen Childs says, “My view is that the one third figure is an underestimate, with families often not appreciating the relevance of the work being done by all family members. An example of this relates to a claim for mesothelioma I concluded last year, for a man whose brother had been an apprentice with the CEGB when they were both teenagers. It turned out their mother had also developed and died from mesothelioma in 2003, but at the time nobody had considered the son’s employment, concentrating instead on the husband’s work – which did not involve exposure to asbestos.”

Trends we have spotted

The HSE reports that the rate of diagnosis of mesothelioma for men aged under 65 has been falling for some time. Anecdotally, however, we are seeing an increase: previously, it would have been very rare to have a client in their 50s, yet at the moment we have several, and more still aged under 65. One of our clients died when only in his 40s, and despite the tighter controls that should have been in place in the building industry from the 1970s onwards, he was extensively exposed doing construction work as a very young man in the 1980s. We are also seeing more clients who were exposed at school, whether as pupils or teachers.

Why is specialist expertise crucial?

As the personal injury market becomes tougher, we have noticed a trend for firms who are not asbestos specialists to take on asbestos claim cases – and lose where a specialist firm would have won.

For example, last August we took on a case for the family of a woman who had worked as a screen printer and died of mesothelioma in September 2013. Before the family instructed us, they had been dealing with a non-specialist firm who had made very little progress and even suggested at one stage that the claim should be put into the portal for fast track employers liability claims. We issued protective proceedings, took a statement from a workmate, secured an admission within weeks and settles the case settled for a six figure sum – all within eight months of instruction.

Even large claimant disease firms can miss perfectly good cases. We have just been instructed by the family of a man who was a lagger in the 1950s and died aged 91. The firm he instructed dropped the case; it’s not quite clear why, but we suspect that with junior or inexperienced staff doing the majority of the work, it fell foul of some kind of checklist-driven assessment system, which ruled out early exposure or couldn’t cope with the fact there was another source of exposure as he was also in the Royal Navy at the end of WWII. In this particular case, the 99 year old widow was left with the prospect of no recompense or assistance with her care costs, as the MoD’s mesothelioma payments fund only allows applications during the individual’s lifetime. Since we got instructed, however, we’ve made steady progress and expect to settle the case within a year.

Sound legal advice for asbestos-related disease sufferers

The burden of mesothelioma arising out of exposure to asbestos continues to rise. Indeed, as time goes on, the exposure sustained by our clients is more likely to have occurred at a time when the risks of even relatively low level exposure to asbestos should have been appreciated. The cost in human suffering is enormous, and exacerbated if the proper legal advice is not sought or given, and families are left without recompense.

For each successful claim concluded for an individual or family with mesothelioma, the Government is also typically able to recoup over £15,000 in lump sum payments and IIDB/care related benefits.

We welcome the APIL accredited occupational/industrial disease specialist status - which should only be awarded to experienced specialist lawyers, and should ensure than anyone affected by mesothelioma is properly advised about the legal recourse open to them.

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