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Justice at last for asbestos victims

PUBLISHED: 15:00 12 March 2010 | UPDATED: 08:46 02 July 2010

Brian Wharton who died in 2008 after being diagnosed with pleural plaques

Brian Wharton who died in 2008 after being diagnosed with pleural plaques

Peter Walsh

It's about time - that is the message from families of people killed by asbestos-related diseases in response to a package of measures announced by the government to support people who have been exposed to the deadly dust.

“It's about time” - that is the message from families of people killed by asbestos-related diseases in response to a package of measures announced by the government to support people who have been exposed to the deadly dust.

Campaigners have been fighting for years for justice for victims of asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung, and their families who have faced a bitter battle to get compensation and better treatment for sufferers.

In what is being viewed as a victory for campaigners, the Ministry of Justice has unveiled plans to help those whose lives have been affected by asbestos - the dangers of which have been highlighted through the Evening News's Dust of Death campaign.

Doreen Mingay, 75, whose husband Derek, 74, a former naval officer died in 2004 after being exposed to asbestos while working in boiler rooms said: “It's about time they did something about it. I'm an old woman now and it can't help me, but there are so many people it should be helping and they shouldn't have to worry about it.”

Mrs Mingay, a mother-of-three who lives in Alexandra Road, Norwich, said victims and their families should not only be compensated, but helped and supported through the devastating disease.

She said: “I would not wish on anyone what my husband went through. It's the most horrendous and awful thing to happen.”

The package of new measures includes:

An extra-statutory scheme of fixed payments of £5,000 for people who had begun, but not resolved, a legal claim for compensation for pleural plaques - small localised areas of fibrosis caused by exposure to asbestos found in the pleura of the lung - at the time of a Lords ruling in October 2007 which ended the right to compensation.

The creation of an Employers' Liability Tracing Office to help people who develop an asbestos-related disease to trace the relevant insurer and obtain full compensation.

A Department of Work and Pensions consultation, currently under way, on the creation of an Employers' Liability Insurance Bureau to act as a fund of last resort for sufferers of asbestos-related disease who cannot trace the insurance records needed to gain compensation.

Increased upfront payments for mesothelioma sufferers and their dependents.

Consideration of changes to the law to clarify the limitation period to bring a claim for mesothelioma, and resolve differences in claims settled before or after death.

The Third Parties (Rights against Insurers) Bill, currently before Parliament, which aims to simplify the process of bringing claims against the insurers of companies which no longer exist.

The shocking scale of asbestos-related disease in Norfolk is reflected in figures showing that during 2004/ 2005 51 people were being treated for the cancer of the lining of the lungs or abdomen - making the county the 15th highest out of 90 local authority areas.

According to the Health and Safety Executive the annual number of asbestos-related deaths in the country in 2007, the latest year for which data was available, was 4,312. That figure, which included 2, 156 mesothelioma deaths, is expected to rise to 10,000 by 2020.

Greater Norfolk coroner William Armstrong said he would support any initiative to help those affected by asbestos-related disease.

He said: “These are very encouraging developments and I would certainly welcome them. I deal with a substantial number of inquests into people who have died from asbestos-related diseases and the numbers seem to be growing.

“There are unfortunately people who have been exposed to asbestos many years before the condition manifests itself and many of them die in very distressing circumstances.

“Anything that can be done to help their relatives and loved ones claim the compensation to which they are entitled is very much to be welcomed.”

Charles Clarke, Norwich South MP, also welcomed the move. He said: “It's a terrible thing when people's health is damaged or destroyed by asbestos and every possible step needs to be taken to give them the best support they can receive.”

Chloe Smith, MP for Norwich North, said: “The consultation was launched a year and a half ago and I am pleased that finally a decision has been reached.

“Many people in Norwich need help with the consequences of asbestos in their former work places. This seems like good news.”

The measures announced by the government, which follow a government consultation on how best to respond to the Law Lords' ruling of 2007, also include a commitment to expand research in this area, with government support for increased investment alongside £3 million of funding from the insurance industry.

Ministers have also vowed to set up a working group of claimant solicitors, trade unions, insurers, the judiciary and civil servants to examine litigation practices and procedures for compensation claims relating to mesothelioma, and to identify options for streamlining them in order to reduce the time taken to conclude cases.

Jack Straw, Justice Secretary, said: “We are firmly committed to supporting people with asbestos-related diseases and intend to build on and extend the measures which we have already introduced in this area.”

Are you battling for compensation after being diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease? Call reporter Peter Walsh on 01603 772436 or email peter.walsh@archant.co.uk

Eileen Wharton 65, whose husband Brian, 68, died in March 2008 after being diagnosed with pleural plaques, said she welcomed plans to help victims and their families trace relevant insurers.

Mr Wharton was an electrician with the old Norwich Electrical based in Exeter Street in the city for 24 years who came into contact with asbestos during his work. The family put in a claim for compensation but were told it could not be taken to court because the insurers of Norwich Electrical could not be found.

Mrs Wharton, from Postwick, near Thorpe St Andrew, said: “It would be good if they did do something like that to help. I think it's about time. Unfortunately I've lost my husband so it's too late for him.

“I would really like to see something happen so people who have pleural plaques, or anything like that, can get compensation. The people who have it need the compensation. It's no good waiting until its gone too far.”

Mrs Wharton said she felt “bitter” that her husband, like so many others, spent so many years working with materials unaware of the danger that they posed or that exposure to it would one day lead to his death.

She said: “It's a death sentence. At the end of the day all these people did their work, didn't know what they were working with and had no idea 40 or 50 years down the line they would have this problem.”

The Evening News launched the Dust of Death Asbestos Action Campaign in 1997, which aimed to raise awareness of the risks associated with asbestos, in 1997.

It followed the death of 57-year-old Malcolm Gardiner from mesothelioma. Mr Gardiner, from Hellesdon, worked at the Heatrae Sadia factory in Hurricane Way which stopped using asbestos in 1976.

The campaign was backed by Mr Gardiner's widow Linda, former Norwich North MP Ian Gibson, and asbestos campaigner Helen Bocking, whose husband died of asbestosis.

The campaign scored a victory in August 1998 when the Health and Safety Commission announced a move to outlaw the use of deadly white asbestos. It was used in the construction industry and heavy industry from the 1940s to the 1980s.

In 2002 the campaign was praised by Norwich coroner William Armstrong who “commended” the Evening News for the campaign which he said brought the matter to the attention of the public.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lungs which is a direct result of exposure to asbestos and is most commonly contracted at work.

There are three types of mesothelioma, pleural, peritoneal, and pericardial.

The first is the most common and is caused by inhaling asbestos fibres into the lungs. A tumour forms on the lining (pleura) of the lungs, which makes breathing difficult and painful.

Peritoneal mesothelioma is less common and is caused by inhaled fibres which are coughed up out of the lungs and swallowed. A tumour develops on the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum) which prevents it from working properly to lubricate the organs inside the abdomen. Organ problems will follow.

The most rare is pericardial mesothelioma. Patients develop a tumour on the membranes lining the heart which prevents the heart from moving properly to pump blood around the body.

In the majority of cases, asbestosis develops after several years of inhaling asbestos and dust fibres. The dust enters the narrow tubes leading to the lungs and causes scarring and thickening, known as fibrosis, which can cause the lungs to lose some of their elasticity.

Pleural plaques are a scarring of the lung tissue which proves exposure to asbestos has occurred in the past.

Lung cancer is most commonly associated with smoking but can also be caused by inhaling asbestos.

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