A northern Ireland man has told how he and seven of his |siblings are being treated for asbestos-related lung damage possibly passed on by their father who worked in a Belfast shipyard.
Sean Rickard has told how out of nine brothers and sisters, seven have been diagnosed with lung damage linked to the lethal fibres.
Another sibling has recently finished treatment for mesothelioma — a rare form of lung cancer attributed to exposure to asbestos during his childhood.
Their father Patrick Rickard, who died in 1974 from a lung condition linked to asbestos, worked as a pipe coverer spraying the substance in Harland and Wolff shipyard from 1949 to 1969. Like all the men who worked there during the era, he was completely oblivious to the poison he was bringing home to his family on a daily basis.
Nobody knew that every time he returned to the small two-bedroom house he lived in with his wife Annie and their nine children he was potentially condemning the people he loved most to death.
At the very least, they all now live in the knowledge that at any time they could be diagnosed with a terminal illness because of their contact with asbestos.
Sean, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in January and has undergone surgery and chemotherapy to control his tumour, explained: “My father stopped working in 1969 because of ill health and eventually died as a result of his exposure to asbestos during work. My mother had pleural plaques and died from lung cancer which we believe was almost certainly caused by asbestos.
“We used to play with my father when he came home, my brother and I would play with the protective mask he was supposed to wear. My sisters would comb his hair which was full of asbestos dust.
“We would all help my mother shake the dust off his clothes before they were washed. We only had two bedrooms in the house and when we were babies we would sleep in our parents’ room where my father’s work clothes were. We didn’t have a washing machine so the clothes couldn’t be washed every time they were worn.”
Asbestos, an insulating material widely used following the Second World War, is linked to a number of lung conditions — including pleural plaques, which is scarring of the lining of the lungs, while 80% of people who develop mesothelioma have been in contact with asbestos.
Mr Rickard, who has worked as a teacher in the likes of London and Madrid, continued: “I was having problems breathing coming up to Christmas.
“I have always been fit and active, I don’t smoke and I would have played golf a couple of times a week, but everything was starting to become a struggle. My breathing was getting very laboured when I was doing something simple like taking clothes out of the washing machine.”
After undergoing tests,he was told he was suffering from a terminal tumour in the lining of his lungs: “My oncologist told me we were talking months, between four and 18 months.
“Unfortunately by the time you are diagnosed with mesothelioma it is normally too late. The treatment I am going through is palliative, not curative. I had an operation to remove as much of the tumour as possible and then chemotherapy and I am due for a scan to see how the tumour is doing.
“I had a scan during the treatment and it showed it hadn’t grown, so I am positive. You never know what treatment they could come up with. I’m about the same age my father was when he died. I hope to be around for quite a while longer.”
The long delay between the exposure to asbestos and death from mesothelioma is typically between 30 and 40 years, with Health and Safety Executive figures showing that the number of deaths from the cancer rising from 152 to 2,156 in 2007. They also show the expected number of deaths among men is predicted to increase to a peak of 2,038 in 2016.
Mr Rickard believes many people across Northern Ireland could be living with the legacy of the deadly substance.
“None of my brothers or sisters have ever worked with asbestos but seven of us have been diagnosed with pleural plaques,” he said.
“Another two have never been tested because they don’t really want to know, but the chances are they probably have them. I have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and my brothers and sisters are living knowing they might develop it too.
“My whole family now lives with a ticking time bomb. It’s scary to think this was passed on by something as innocent as a father giving his children a hug.”
The hidden danger that is killing workers
Asbestos is an insulating material that is heat and fire-resistant and in the past was used widely in a range of industrial settings.
As a result, most cases of mesothelioma occur in men who have worked in manufacturing using asbestos or who have used asbestos products, particularly in construction or engineering.
A UK study showed that risks are particularly high for metal plate workers — mainly in shipbuilding and carpenters, and the risk is higher in people exposed to asbestos before the age of 30.
This study estimated that one out of 17 British carpenters born in the 1940s and employed in carpentry for more than 10 years before the age of 30 would go on to develop mesothelioma.
People who worked as plumbers or mechanics also have an increased risk.
Mesothelioma is quite a rare cancer, but it is becoming more common.
By far the main cause of the cancer is exposure to asbestos — between seven and eight out of every 10 people diagnosed with mesothelioma say they have been in contact with asbestos.
Asbestos is made up of tiny fibres which can be breathed into the lungs, where they work their way into the pleura lining the lung.
The fibres irritate the pleura and may cause gene changes which lead to the growth of cancer.
Some of the fibres that have been breathed in can be coughed up and swallowed, which is believed to be the cause of mesothelioma in the stomach lining.
In its early stages, mesothelioma does not have many symptoms and when they do develop they are often caused by the cancer growing and pressing on a nerve or other body organ.
The symptoms of pleural mesothelioma — cancer of the lung lining — are pain in the lower back or the side of the chest, a persistent cough, shortness of breath, a hoarse or husky voice, losing more than 10% of your weight when not dieting, difficulty swallowing, sweating and high temperatures.
The symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma — cancer of the stomach lining — are pain in the abdomen, swelling in the abdomen, feeling or being sick, poor appetite, losing more than 10% of weight when not dieting, diarrhoea or constipation.
Generally, of all the people diagnosed with mesothelioma, around four out of 10 will be alive one year later. Around 20% survive for two years and only around 10% will be alive after three years.