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Mesothelioma: Expert lawyer explains what the disease is, why asbestos is still a public safety risk and how to protect yourself from the killer dust

As we mark Action Mesothelioma Day on 5 July, it's a time to reflect on the huge impact asbestos has had in the UK. However, it's also a time to look to the future and how we can better protect ourselves from exposure to this silent killer. 

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is mined from the ground, and can be crushed and processed to create insulation and fire-resistant products. 

It used to be known as the ‘magic mineral’. It was an essential part of many of Britain’s largest industries, from shipbuilding to power stations, steelworks and the trains that ran on the railway networks. Later, it was used extensively as a cheap alternative to wood to build homes, schools, offices and hospitals in the post-Second World War era. 

However, the ‘magic mineral’ wasn't all it seemed to be, and it's now more commonly referred to as the ‘killer dust’. Inhalation of asbestos dust and fibres can lead to the development of respiratory and abdominal conditions, decades after work with the material ceased. 

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer which usually affects the lining of the lung but can also affect the abdomen. The disease is almost exclusively linked to exposure to asbestos dust and fibres. Such exposures often happen in industrial settings but are now more frequently occurring in places such as schools, hospitals and office buildings, where asbestos was used to insulate heating systems, or to manufacture partitions, suspended ceilings and floor tiles. 

Our special report on Asbestos in Public Buildings revealed that more than 4,500 public buildings across 20 of the highest populated council areas in the UK still contained asbestos and experts estimate around 87,000 UK public buildings contain asbestos. 

In April 2022, MPs recommended a 40-year deadline be set for the removal of asbestos from the estimated 300,000 public and commercial buildings that still contain it. However, the report from the Work and Pensions Committee was rejected by the Government. 

How many people are affected by mesothelioma?

Health and Safety Executive figures show that in 2021, there were 2,268 mesothelioma deaths - 1,867 male and 401 female deaths. From 2012 – 2019, an average of 2,520 people died each year from mesothelioma.  

However, this doesn't tell the whole story. From 2001 – 2018, there were a total of 34,367 male deaths and 6,532 female deaths from mesothelioma. 

The incidence of mesothelioma has risen by 765% from the 1970s to today. By way of comparison, the Windscale fire, the worst nuclear accident in the UK, led to around 100 – 240 cancer deaths; the Piper Alpha disaster killed 167 men; the Aberfan collapse killed 116 children and 28 adults. If everyone diagnosed with mesothelioma had died at the same time, Britain’s asbestos legacy would be recognised for what it is: the worst industrial disaster of modern times. 

How to protect yourself from asbestos

Given that asbestos is so prevalent still in our buildings, what can you do to protect yourself from exposure, and what should you do if you believe you have been exposed to asbestos? 

As a specialist lawyer in dealing with asbestos-related disease claims, I'm often contacted by people who are understandably anxious that their workplace, home or school has recently been found to contain asbestos. They are worried about their health, and want advice on what can be done immediately, and how to protect themselves against future exposures. 

If asbestos is in good condition and isn't disturbed, then the risk posed by the material is low. However, it's important you know where the asbestos is, so that you can avoid disturbing it.

You're most at risk of disturbing asbestos if you're carrying out maintenance and repair works, refurbishment, demolition or installation works, as these works involved disturbing the structure of the building. 

Five pieces of advice to protect yourself

Here are my five pieces of advice to protect yourself from exposure, and what to do if you believe you have already been exposed to asbestos.

  1. If you work in a trade where such activities are likely to take place, or if you are carrying out DIY work at home, you should familiarise yourself with the potential locations of asbestos and what it looks like. If you may come across asbestos as part of your work, then your employer has a duty to ensure you are properly trained to identify potential asbestos containing materials. 
  2. If you believe that you have come across asbestos, then you must stop work immediately, and inform your supervisor or line manager. Warning signs should then be put up, and the material analysed before work can be safely resumed. 
  3. If you work in a building such as a school or an office, where asbestos is present but you're unlikely to disturb it, then the risks of exposure are lower, but exposures can and do occur. Anyone who works in a building that was built before the year 2000 and where asbestos is known or presumed to be present must be told the specific locations of the asbestos materials, and warned about the dangers of disturbing them. There should also be an asbestos management plan for the premises, to ensure that the asbestos remains in good condition, so that the risks are kept to a minimum. 
  4. If you've been exposed to asbestos, whether at work, school, in the office or at home, then it is important to make a record of that exposure. If possible, take photographs of the asbestos, and make a note of when, where and how the exposure occurred. If you get any letters or documents from work, advising you that you have been exposed to asbestos, then keep these with your own note. Also report the exposure to your GP, so that they can make a note in your medical records that you have been exposed to asbestos. 
  5. If you believe that you have been exposed to asbestos, then this can be a very frightening time. There is no upper limit to the time between exposure to asbestos dust and fibres and the development of mesothelioma, so once an exposure has occurred, there is always a risk that mesothelioma may develop in the future, although these risks are relatively low. If you're worried about your asbestos exposure, charities such as Mesothelioma UK or the Forum of Asbestos Victims Support Groups can provide additional information and support.

What are the signs of mesothelioma?

The time from exposure to asbestos to showing symptoms of mesothelioma can be anywhere between 15 to 45 years, according to the charity Mesothelioma UK.  However,  it can develop quickly once symptoms appear.   The charity says the following:

The main symptoms of pleural mesothelioma (affecting the lung) are:  

  • shortness of breath  
  • chest pain  
  • cough  
  • sweating  
  • loss of appetite  
  • weight loss  
  • fatigue and lethargy  

The main symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma (affecting the abdomen) are:   

  • Pain in the abdomen (stomach)  
  • A swollen abdomen  
  • Constipation or diarrhoea  
  • Feeling or being sick  
  • Indigestion  
  • Loss of appetite  
  • Weight loss  
  • Night Sweats   
  • Fatigue  

What are my legal rights if I've been diagnosed with mesothelioma?

Anyone diagnosed with mesothelioma should seek immediate legal advice, even if they aren't sure where their exposure occurred, and even if their employer has gone out of business. 

In England and Wales, mesothelioma sufferers are entitled to claim compensation from their former employer for negligent exposure to asbestos, in breach of the statutory and common law duties that were in force at the time the exposure occurred. In addition, sufferers are entitled to claim industrial injuries disablement benefits and a lump sum Workers’ Compensation Allowance from the DWP. 

If the employer has gone out of business, and their employers’ liability insurer cannot be traced, then a claim can be made to the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme, a fund of last resort. 

In all these claims, it's very important that the sufferer is advised by a solicitor specialising in mesothelioma claims, so that proper investigations can be carried out, ideally whilst the sufferer is still able to provide information about their work history. Therefore, if you're diagnosed as suffering with mesothelioma, or any other asbestos-related condition, don’t delay in seeking legal advice. 


In 2024, we marked the 100-year anniversary of Nellie Kershaw, the first person to have been officially diagnosed with ‘asbestos poisoning’. One hundred years on, over 2,000 people a year are still being issued with death certificates citing the same cause of death. Let us hope that, with increased awareness, those numbers will start to fall over the next 100 years, until this dreadful condition is consigned to the history books. 

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and families affected by exposure to asbestos at our dedicated asbestos-related disease claims section. Alternatively, to speak to an expert contact us or call 0370 1500 100.