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16 January 2024 | Comment | Article by Anna Burns

Growing concern over asbestos in British Army equipment


There have been a number of reports recently across UK news platforms, confirming the presence of asbestos within British defence equipment.

In 2019, following a review of asbestos in relation to defence equipment, the UK Government published a list of British Army equipment currently in and out of service, containing asbestos. The list included numerous helicopters, various aircraft, land equipment, ships, submarines, weapons and FUCHS vehicles. 1

The Ministry of Defence confirmed in September 2023 that the Royal Navy’s frigates, destroyers and nuclear armed submarines may all contain asbestos. 2

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral with heat resistant properties. At the height of its usage throughout the 1950s and 1960s it was used to lag pipework and provide fire protection across many different industries.

However, since the early 1900s, exposure to asbestos fibres has been known to cause respiratory issues. In 1924 a 33-year-old woman named Nelie Kershaw died from asbestosis after being exposed to asbestos whilst working in a textile factory, spinning asbestos into yarn. There was a growing pressure for action and as such, the Asbestos Industry Regulations 1931 were introduced, followed by the Factories Act 1937 which set out ways to reduce dust levels in the workplace.

In 1960 Chris Wagner, Research Pathologist reported on the link between individuals in South Africa developing Mesothelioma, after working in an asbestos mine 20+ years beforehand. His findings also referenced people who had developed mesothelioma from living in the same neighbourhood of the mine.

Despite this knowledge, the import and usage of asbestos in the UK was not banned completely until 1999.

What does asbestos do after being inhaled?

After being inhaled, asbestos fibres are incredibly difficult for the human body to break down. Instead, the fibres can attach to the lining of the lungs and over time, they can cause respiratory illnesses in susceptible people. Typically, it can take anywhere between 20 and 60 years for respiratory symptoms to develop.

The illnesses that can be caused by asbestos inhalation are:-

  • Mesothelioma (a cancer that is almost only ever cause by asbestos)
  • Lung cancer
  • Asbestosis
  • Pleural thickening
  • Pleural plaques 3

It should also be noted that the development of an asbestos illness is dependent upon a number of factors, and where legal claims are pursued it is important to be mindful of the amount of asbestos an individual has been exposed to in certain circumstances.

With the above in mind, the 2019 list of defence equipment containing asbestos also included a footnote stating that ‘the presence of asbestos containing materials in specific platforms is not an indication of personal risk. Potential exposure to asbestos fibres on defence equipment may be dependent upon a number of factors including personal access to components containing ACMs [Asbestos Containing Materials], duration of exposure, whether the presence of asbestos containing materials was known and handling precautions taken. Work continues to establish a substantiated baseline on specific equipment platforms and further information will be made available where necessary in due course.’ 1

Whilst every case is determined on its own facts, it is important to note that for mesothelioma in particular, such cancers can develop following low-level exposures to asbestos. In the landmark legal claim of Dianne Willmore v Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council [2011],  Mrs Willmore had developed mesothelioma after being exposed to low levels of asbestos as a pupil at Bowring Comprehensive School in Knowsley during the 1970s. Whilst the levels of asbestos exposure were low, Lord Justice Sedley said in the appeal “It has to be remembered that where asbestos is involved, a risk of exposure is a risk of harm.” The claim was successful and compensation was awarded.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the internal organs, almost exclusively linked to asbestos exposure. It tends to affect the lining of the lungs, however in rare cases it can also affect the lining of the stomach, heart and testes. There is currently no cure for mesothelioma and whilst immunotherapy and chemotherapy can be offered, sadly life expectancy is often limited to 12-18 months.

In relation to the recent news that asbestos remains within British Army and Royal Navy defence equipment, it is devastating to learn that military personnel may have been exposed to asbestos in current times, despite the overwhelming amount of knowledge that we now have about the dangers of asbestos, even at low level.

At Hugh James, our specialist asbestos solicitors represent victims and their families from all over the UK and are highly experienced in investigating asbestos claims. We offer a nationwide service and act on a ‘no win no fee basis.’

We have helped ex-military personnel who alleged that they were exposed to asbestos during aircraft refit work, being in the vicinity of maintenance of helicopters, as well as working onboard warships to mention a few specific circumstances.

As military personnel, there is a Government War Pension Scheme available to veterans for any injury or illness caused by or made worse by their service in His Majesty’s Armed Forces. This can be as much as £140,000.

It should be noted that this War Pension is separate to any legal claim and was put in place due to Crown immunity which lasted until 1987, where claims could not be brought against the Crown prior to this date.

We work closely with various Asbestos Support Groups to help raise awareness of the options available to anyone who has received an asbestos illness diagnosis.

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/asbestos-in-defence-equipment-platforms-buildings-and-infrastructure/defence-equipment-platforms-with-asbestos-containing-materials-as-at-november-2019
  2. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/british-army-tanks-asbestos-ministry-defence-2023-xbv2gpwrc
  3. Legal claims cannot be pursued for pleural plaques in England and Wales

We understand that our clients contact us during a difficult time, we are here to help, and make the process as easy and stress free as possible. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch on 0161 246 2361 or [email protected]

Author bio

Anna Burns is a specialist Asbestos Litigator who has been helping individuals diagnosed with asbestos related illnesses to claim compensation since she qualified as a Solicitor in 2007.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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