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Written on 24th March 2020 by

Exposure to asbestos in science lessons causes pupils mesothelioma according to medical experts.

Boyes Turner’s expert mesothelioma and asbestos claims solicitors were instructed to investigate a claim for a mother of three who had been diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2015. 

Mary had begun to suffer from symptoms of shortness of breath in September 2015 and it was initially suspected that she may have asthma.  She was prescribed antibiotics but her condition did not improve. She was referred to the Royal Berkshire Hospital and had five litres of fluid drained from her lungs following x-rays and scans. After a biopsy at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital she was confirmed to have a diagnosis of epithelioid mesothelioma in December 2015.

What is mesothelioma?

In the UK about 2600 people a year are diagnosed with mesothelioma. It is also known as ‘diffuse’ or ‘malignant’ mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that develops in the lining that covers the outer surface of some of the body's organs. It's usually linked to asbestos exposure.

Mesothelioma mainly affects the lining of the lungs (pleural mesothelioma), although it can also affect the lining of the tummy (peritoneal mesothelioma), heart or testicles.

Mesothelioma is more common in men than in women and nearly half of the people diagnosed with the disease are over 75 years old.

Epithelioid mesothelioma is the most common cell type and accounts for about 70 – 80% of all mesothelioma cases. This cell type typically responds well to treatment and has a more favorable prognosis than other cell types. Patients with epithelioid mesothelioma have an average life expectancy of 12 – 24 months.

How is mesothelioma diagnosed? (According to the NHS site)

If your GP suspects mesothelioma, they'll refer you to a hospital specialist for some tests.

A number of different tests may need to be carried out, including:

  • an X-ray of your chest or tummy
  • a CT scan – a number of X-ray images are taken to create a detailed image of the inside of the body
  • fluid drainage – if there's a build-up of fluid around the lungs or in the tummy, a sample may be removed using a needle inserted through the skin so the fluid can be analysed
  • a thoracoscopy or laparoscopy – the inside of your chest or tummy is examined with a long, thin camera that's inserted through a small cut (incision) under sedation or anaesthetic; a sample of tissue (biopsy) may be removed so it can be analysed

These tests can help diagnose mesothelioma and show how far its spread.

Mary suffered with shortness of breath, fatigue and discomfort.  She had fluid drained from her chest twice a week by her close friends and family.  Out of choice she did not undergo any treatment for her mesothelioma. Mary struggled to come to terms with her diagnosis and did not like to discuss her condition as it distressed her.  She became very distressed if she had to go to the doctors and therefore she was largely cared for at home by friends and family including her young daughter now aged 24. Mary had anxiety with panic attacks associated with her diagnosis.

How was she exposed to asbestos?

When we were instructed to investigate Mary’s claim we visited her at home to discuss the circumstances where she may have encountered exposure to asbestos dust. 

Mary’s career was largely office work, retail and hospitality and she was a stay at home mum.  These are not typical areas where you would expect someone to have encountered asbestos.

After undertaking investigations we identified Mary’s likely source of exposure to asbestos dust whilst she was a pupil at Littleport Primary School and Littleport Village College in Cambridgeshire. Mary attended Littleport Primary School between 1968 and 1974 and Littleport Village College between 1974 and 1979. She described the schools as run down and in poor condition.

Mary recalled that the radiators were big and made of cast iron with large pipes leading to and from the radiators in both schools.  She described that the pipes were lagged with asbestos and she would often hang wet clothes to dry on the radiators and wet trainers on the pipes.  Dust would come off of the pipes onto her shoes.

Mary further alleged exposure to asbestos when in her school science lessons.  As with a large number of other school children in the 1970s she used Bunsen burners. She described that asbestos mats which were grey and fibrous and in poor condition were used under the Bunsen burners.  They were soft and easily damaged.  She would dig pens into them and break bits of them off.  The broken bits would then be thrown and flicked around by some of her classmates.  They were in poor condition and pieces would be ripped off.  She also undertook experiments using a tripod over the Bunsen burners and asbestos gauze and a wool type material which was asbestos based.

What happened in Mary’s case?

Mary’s diagnosis led to her health gradually deteriorating. She became anxious when left alone and therefore the family tried to avoid this happening. Mary was married and had three children now aged 18, 22 and 24. Her daughter started working part-time in order to care for her and they employed a housekeeper to keep on top of household tasks. Mary sadly passed away in May 2018. At the time of her death her youngest son was in the middle of undertaking his A Levels. 

Mary was the one who always looked after the children and helped them around the home and at school.  She was described as very caring and loved the children being at home and being together. Her husband said that she would have loved to have cared for her grandchildren as she absolutely adored babies. She was just a normal mother who gave her time freely to her children and gave them whatever they needed. She loved them unconditionally and loved spending time with them.

Mary instructed our team and a claim was instigated against Cambridgeshire County Council. Cambridgeshire County Council had responsibility for the schools which Mary had attended. The focus of Mary’s claim was exposure to asbestos lagging at the schools and exposure to asbestos in science lessons. The council vigorously denied responsibility and therefore our team started preparing to go to Trial to prove Mary’s case in February 2020.

We obtained expert medical evidence on Mary’s diagnosis, but Cambridgeshire County Council did not obtain medical evidence. Our expert, Dr Rudd, a well renowned Consultant Physician with an interest in mesothelioma, confirmed that mesothelioma can occur after low level asbestos exposure. He commented that there was no threshold dose of asbestos below which there is no risk. He considered that if the court accepted Mary’s evidence of exposure to asbestos dust this would be sufficient to have caused her mesothelioma.

In addition, both parties instructed expert engineers to consider the circumstances of Mary’s exposure to asbestos dust and the extent to which she would have been exposed based on her description.

The experts agreed that if Mary had disturbed asbestos lagging which was in poor condition as a result of drying out shoes and/or clothing on pipework then it was likely that asbestos dust would have been released. The experts also agreed that it was common for asbestos mats to be used in school at the time of Mary’s schooling and these could have been soft mats made of low density asbestos insulation board or similar, or hard, being made of higher density asbestos cement. Mary’s evidence was that the mats were soft and easily damaged. 

The experts advised that if the court were to accept Mary’s evidence it would be appropriate for them to conclude that her asbestos exposure increased her risk of mesothelioma to a small but significant extent.

What did schools know about the use of asbestos in science lessons?

We undertook investigations to identify the use of asbestos mats in science lessons during the period of Mary’s schooling, locating old science textbooks and historic guidance from the Department of Education.

The Department of Education released an administrative memorandum 20/67 on 18 July 1967. This was circulated to all local education authorities and contained advice and recommendations on asbestos in schools.

This memorandum advised that

“inhalation of any form of asbestos dust by pupils and teachers should be reduced to a minimum”

and

“exposure to even low concentrations of dust may be hazardous… it would seem proper to eliminate the use of crocidolite and crocidolite products and reduce the use of all other forms of asbestos by seeking a substitute wherever possible”

In particular the memorandum gave guidance that asbestos wool was to be kept wet and not allowed to dry out and that hard asbestos mats should be used in science lessons in preference to soft ones and should be disposed of when they become frayed.

The Department of Education released a further administrative memorandum 7/76 on 2 July 1976 that was again circulated to all local education authorities. This guidance went further than the previous guidance to ban the use of all crocidolite products, the use of asbestos wool and the use of soft mats in science, asbestos cord, asbestos gloves or wire gauzes with asbestos centres. The guidance went on to suggest that hard asbestos products should be much less likely to give rise to dust, but in any event hard asbestos mats should be replaced wherever possible.

Mary’s claim relied on the content of the administrative memorandums to demonstrate that the local authority should have been aware of the risks posed to its pupils by exposure to asbestos dust in science lessons and within schools in general. Therefore the Local Authority had breached their duty of care by failing to either minimise or eliminate the exposure to asbestos dust which Mary encountered.

Despite the allegations of negligence and the content of the administrative memorandums the Council maintained their defence and Mary’s case on behalf of her estate and dependents was progressing to trial.

How did Mary’s claim settle?

Mary and her Estate had put forward offers to settle her claim on two separate occasions throughout the course of the litigation and a further offer to settle was made in late December 2019. The local authority maintained their denial of Mary’s case, but accepted her offer to settle prior to Christmas 2019 for £190,000 bringing her family some peace of mind and going at least a small way to compensating them for the loss of a mother and wife.

Mary’s claim included a claim to compensate her family for the loss of convenience and comfort of having someone who provided services and assistance out of love and affection and a loss of emotional support and companionship. The children and her husband were dependent on Mary for the services which she provided and this was claimed as a part of her overall compensation claim.

In addition, Mary’s claim also included the hospice’s costs of providing care and assistance to Mary of £2,400 being the proportion which was not funded by NHS clinical commissioning groups. Sue Ryder Hospice will therefore receive £2,400 from the compensation to cover the cost of caring for Mary in her final stages of illness.

Mary’s barrister Matthew Phillips QC of Outer Temple Chambers comments that

“The Administrative Memorandums that emanated from the Department of Education and Science in 1967 and 1976 are very important documents.  They are helpful to Claimants seeking to pursue claims arising out of asbestos exposure of pupils and teachers in schools from 1967 onwards.  The application of AM 20/67 and 7/76 is not limited to asbestos use in science lessons and was sent to all educational establishments including private schools.  Settlements such as Mary’s are indicative of the challenges faced by schools seeking to defend claims involving unprotected asbestos exposure of pupils/staff post 1967”