Information Sought On Schools In Gateshead And Consett
A former teacher from County Durham, diagnosed with terminal asbestos cancer is appealing to her former colleagues for help regarding how she developed the disease.
Shirley Falkenau, 75, from Consett, was diagnosed with mesothelioma on 9 July 2021, a cancer of the lining of the lung associated with asbestos exposure, often decades previously.
Following her diagnosis, Shirley instructed specialist asbestos-related disease lawyers at Irwin Mitchell to investigate where her exposure to the substance may have occurred.
Together with her legal team, Shirley is now appealing to anyone who worked at St Wilfrid’s Catholic School and Dunston Hill School both based in Gateshead, to come forward with information about the conditions.
They are also asking for information on Rowlands Gill Secondary School, which later became Hookergate Comprehensive in Gateshead and Consett Technical College, which later became Derwentside College.
The appeal comes ahead of World Cancer Day on 4 February, an international day to raise awareness of cancer and to encourage its prevention, detection, and treatment.
In recent years, a growing number of former teachers have been diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses. A 2019 report by the ResPublica think tank found more than 200 teachers had died in the last 10 years as a result of asbestos exposure and for each teacher affected, nine ex-pupils could also be expected to fall victim.
Expert Opinion“Shirley is devastated by her diagnosis and what it means for her and her family.
“While many people often associate asbestos with the North East’s traditional industries its use was common within many public buildings with buildings such as schools, hospitals and offices containing the material.
“We’ve represented many former teachers over the years who discovered they had been exposed to asbestos in schools. Sadly Shirley’s case is the latest of these.
“There’s not much the doctors can do with regards to curing Shirley’s cancer but we’re determined to at least provide her with the answers she deserves regarding her diagnosis.
“Therefore if anyone who recalls working with Shirley or if anyone who remembers the working conditions at the schools she was employed in could come forward, it could play a key role in helping Shirley to discover the answers she deserves.” Emma Bell - Senior Associate Solicitor
A home economics teacher, Shirley originally worked for the Inner London Education Authority, now Tower Hamlets Council, in Bowbrook Girls School from 1967 until 1970, before taking a leave of absence to travel to Kathmandu.
Shirley moved North on returning to the UK in 1971, and taught home economics at St Wilfrid’s Catholic School, located in Old Fold Road, Gateshead. Shirley recalled that here, as in many of the schools she worked, the ironing boards included an asbestos plate.
Shirley met history teacher and husband-to-be Guy Falkenau on a course in London in 1970 and the pair married in 1971 and went on to have her son in 1976.
From September 1971, through to April 1972, Shirley was at Hillhead Junior School teaching drama and literacy. Here and in many of the schools she worked in, Shirley recalled pinning work to the walls and would sweep up any resulting dust. Shirley was at Dunston Hill School from April to June 1972, where she used the same ironing boards as in previous places.
Having been looking for the right role to settle into, Shirley joined Rowlands Gill Secondary School, which later became Hookergate Comprehensive, where she worked from September 1972 until August 1976. She was head of department, teaching home economics.
The ironing boards again included an asbestos plate and Shirley believes the oven gloves used may also have contained asbestos. She continued to pin up work on the walls, while falling ceiling tiles also generated a lot of dust. A former colleague told Shirley extensive repair work was going on during their time there.
Shirley left in 1976 to have her son and returned to teaching in 1980 at Consett Technical College, which became known as Derwentside College in 1986. Shirley worked there from 1980 up to her retirement in 2007 and during this period of employment, had her daughter in 1982.
The college was an old building and Shirley thought there was asbestos on the pipes in the building. She also did some teaching in portacabins on site, which Shirley believes could also have contained asbestos.
Shirley began suffering with breathlessness in around March 2021, when she noticed that she could not walk as far as she used to. Sadly, Shirley was suffering with a build-up of fluid on her lung and subsequently underwent a biopsy operation. It was following the biopsy that Shirley was given her devastating diagnosis.
Shirley said: “Looking back, I now realise that I probably would have been regularly exposed to asbestos through handling and using ironing boards in lessons.
“When you’re teaching, you just get on with the job and my mesothelioma diagnosis came as a bolt from the blue. I struggled to think where I could’ve encountered asbestos at first and then you think of things like the old pipe lagging and the ironing boards.
“Nothing can really prepare you for the shock of hearing you have terminal cancer and the disbelief and the worry about what the future holds. I want to be strong for my family and while I can’t now change the past, I want to find out more about how this came to happen.
“If anyone out there who worked at these locations when I did could come forward, it would be a big help. Even small details at this stage could help a lot.
“I don’t know what this diagnosis means for the future, so I’m keen to find out as much as I can as soon as I can, so I can get the answers while I am still fit and able enough to do so.”
World Cancer Day on 4 February is an international awareness day led by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) to raise worldwide attention and inspire action for a cancer-free world.
Anyone with information that could help Shirley, is asked to contact Stephanie Wilson on 0191 434 0731 or at Stephanie.Wilson2@IrwinMitchell.com