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Although mesothelioma is a rare phenomenon, this pernicious cancer continues to impact communities across the globe. This diagnosis is exclusively linked to asbestos exposure, a natural mineral capitalised by the industrial world until it was discovered to cause cancer in the mid to late 1970s.
In support of those suffering from this condition today, The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation has taken charge in getting to the bottom of this preventable cancer. The American based non-profit officially announced September 26th as Mesothelioma Awareness Day 15 years ago, now dedicated to mesothelioma funding, research and education. In support of this movement, we’re here to shed light on where asbestos remains among us today.
Despite the ban on asbestos, up to 4,000 people in the UK continue to lose their lives to asbestos exposure each year. While Ireland has been fortunate enough to have low rates of mesothelioma, there is still risk for exposure within aged public buildings and homes. For example, up to 900 schools across Northern Ireland were found to contain these dangerous fibres. Despite the known risks of exposure, The Department of Education has concluded that as long as the fibres remain undamaged, there is no concern for human health.
However, in June of 2012, Bloomfield Collegiate in east Belfast endured a serious health scandal after damaged asbestos was found on the property. The campus was extensively evaluated after potentially exposing staff, students, and children and reports revealed that 84% of schools in the Northern Education and Library Board area contain asbestos. Not only is this the highest percentage of all five education boards but crocidolite, the most dangerous form of asbestos, was found in as many as 21 schools.
Founder of Asbestos in Schools, Michael Lee, has campaigned against the presence of asbestos since his wife died from mesothelioma as a result of teaching in hazardous conditions. Furthermore he worked alongside Julie Winn, Chair of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, who has also voiced her concerns, explaining, “Asbestos is a very robust substance, which is why it was such a successful building product, and it is hard to damage. However, a lot of asbestos has been in schools from the 1940s onwards so even if the fibres themselves are robust the materials in which it was incorporated will have deteriorated over time.”
Unfortunately, school buildings aren’t the only place asbestos still hides today. In fact, asbestos-related deaths are predicted to rise over the next decade due to lack of public awareness and education. Safety experts have recently emphasised contaminated building materials in construction after discovering that reports of asbestos have increased up to 80% as a result of refurbishments across Ireland.
Darren Arkins, a senior inspector with the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) has advised against the dangers that may arise, stating, “The difficulty that you find now is that a lot of construction workers would have been used to new build during the boom period. They’ve now come away from that in the last number of years into refurbishment and a lot of these guys would never have seen or come across asbestos.”
While Ireland only saw 9 cases of mesothelioma per year as of 1994, nearly 48 cases per year were reported as of 2015. The trouble with detecting this form of cancer is that symptoms can remain concealed for a handful of decades after initial exposure. As a result of the latency period, mesothelioma rates are expected to continue to increase until 2020.
It’s important to note that low doses of asbestos exposure may not result in a chronic condition and the majority of asbestos-related cases are due to heavy occupational exposure. Mesothelioma is the most aggressive disease that stems from inhaling these fibres and leaves patients with a 9% chance of surviving 5 years after their initial diagnosis.
September isn’t the only time of year to show your support, each year Mesothelioma Action Day is celebrated throughout the UK on July 5th. To learn more about this annual awareness day, visit the British Lung Foundation and to learn more about the impact of mesothelioma and asbestos exposure in Ireland, you can also visit the Irish Cancer Society.