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Appeal For Former Aston University Colleagues To Help With Asbestos Investigation

Two Widows Join Forces In Battle For Justice For Their Tragic Partners


The devastated widow and husband of two ex-Aston University employees who died from an aggressive asbestos-related disease have joined forces with lawyers at Irwin Mitchell to encourage their former work mates to come forward and help investigate why they were exposed to the deadly dust and fibres.

Robert Burns, a laboratory research technician, and secretary Valerie White worked in the Biological Sciences Department at Aston University in Birmingham in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Both have since died from the aggressive cancer mesothelioma, which is caused by exposure to asbestos.

Robert’s wife Jane Burns, of Brigham in Cumbria, and Valerie’s husband Christopher White, of Sutton Coldfield, have pledged to continue to fight for justice for the loved ones they lost to the debilitating and incurable disease.

The laboratories included equipment such as Bunsen burner mats and gloves which were routinely made from asbestos in the 1970s. Benches in the laboratories were lined with asbestos and sheets of the material were cut in their workshops. It is also believed that alterations and reconstruction work, which was ongoing during the period

Robert and Valerie worked at the university involved the use of materials containing asbestos and also disturbed asbestos known to be used in the building.

Kim Barrett, an industrial disease expert at law firm Irwin Mitchell’s Birmingham office representing Robert and Valerie’s families, said: “Asbestos-related disease is more commonly associated with people from industrial backgrounds such as ship builders, plumbers, joiners and electricians. But we are sadly seeing an increase in the number of people from other sectors falling victim to mesothelioma, a terrible and incurable form of cancer.

“We want to speak to as many people as possible who worked with Robert and Valerie who may be able to shed light on the working conditions they endured so that we can help their families in their battle for justice.”
Robert moved to the midlands in 1975 where he worked at Aston University as a departmental superintendent in the Biological Sciences department until 1984. He was 75 when he died of mesothelioma in September 2010.

The dad of two daughters and granddad of three, worked with technical and administrative support staff and almost 200 students a year during his career, helping them with their studies. Many of his daily jobs involved handling materials at extreme temperatures, which could have exposed him to asbestos insulation. He also regularly worked in the department’s basement where the furnaces and pipes were all lagged with asbestos.

He first started to show symptoms of the disease in October 2009 when he visited his doctor complaining about chest pains. In February 2010 he also started to feel constantly breathless and his GP sent him for blood tests and scans. Further tests were carried out at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle where he was told the devastating news he had mesothelioma.

Jane, who was married to Robert for 42 years, said: “Robert was devoted to his work and loved being involved in education and helping students with their research projects and during lessons. To think he became so ill just from going to work every day is hard to accept. We were looking forward to a long retirement so it was devastating and a massive shock to see him suffer in the last few months before he died. The whole family, including our two grown-up daughters and our grandchildren – who are aged 12, 10 and eight – miss him so much.”

Valerie, form Wylde Green, Sutton Coldfield, died aged 52 in 11 October 2009 - two years after she was diagnosed with the debilitating condition. She worked as a secretary in the Biological Sciences department at the university between 1973 and 1974 and 1982 and 1983 and. She visited the laboratories every day.

She started to show symptoms of mesothelioma in 2001 but doctors initially thought she was suffering from asthma and prescribed steroids and inhalers.

But when the drugs failed to work she was sent for further tests and scans at the Good Hope Hospital in 2007, which identified a shadow on her left lung. The mum of one was admitted to the Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham where she was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Doctors treated the cancer with chemotherapy and Valerie was well enough to return to work part-time until she died in 2009.

Christopher added: “Valerie’s illness came as a huge shock to us but despite the diagnosis she was determined to carry on and fight it every step of the way. But in the end it was devastating to watch her health and strength slowly deteriorate, knowing that ultimately there was nothing we could do to cure her.

“During her last year you wouldn’t have known anything was wrong with her because she never complained. But in the final two months she really began to feel the pain.

“I hope her former colleagues can help Irwin Mitchell find out why she was allowed to come into contact with asbestos and why more wasn’t done to protect her. I also hope it raises awareness about how dangerous this substance is for people in seemingly ordinary jobs like Valerie had.”

Anyone with information about the working conditions at the Biological Sciences department at Aston University from the 1960s to 1980s should contact Kim Barrett on 0121 2145211 or email Kim.Barrett@irwinmitchell.com.