I have asbestos in my lungs; I know how it got there; when I was an Engine Room Artificer in the Royal Navy I mishandled the substance. I know that now; I didn’t know it then; nobody told us that it was dangerous.
Whenever I needed to work on a component of a steam system, there would be a four to six-inch layer of the stuff which had to be removed before I could work on it. I would start by attacking it with a hammer to break through the hard-outer layer reinforced with chicken wire. Having achieved this, I would remove it and the flaky layers underneath with my bare hands, placing it into a black bin bag so it would be thrown out with the ships’ ordinary rubbish. Doing this would invariably result in the front of my overalls and the sleeves being coated up to the elbows with asbestos. This would have to be brushed off in order not to contaminate the interior of the system once it had been opened. Once again, this would be done using my bare hands. If I went for a stand-easy or a meal break I would walk through the ship to my mess deck, no doubt shedding asbestos dust as I went.
Once I had finished the job, the lagging would have to be made good before steam could be admitted to the system. Almost every ship would have a couple of ratings trained as laggers. They would move in regardless of what was going on in close proximity to them. They would turn up with a sack of powdered asbestos and either a bucket or dustbin, depending on the size of the job. They would tip the powder into the receptacle and add water and mix to the consistency of a mud pie. This they would apply with their bare hands and mould it to the required shape and thickness. Then the chicken wire would be laid over and a compound was added to the mix to produce the hard-outer layer. Pipes would be covered with pre-formed half sections and then wrapped in a woven asbestos blanket, the hems being sewn up using a sail maker’s palm and needle. Once this had been finished the lagging would be coated in whitewash, which for some obscure reason the navy called ‘Dresco’. When I first went to sea the different steam systems would be painted different colours, white for main steam, salmon pink for auxiliary superheated steam, light blue for saturated steam and buff for exhaust steam. However, after a short time they were all painted white. Three of the four ships that I served were anti-submarine frigates and at some points they would fire live shots from their Squid or Limbo ahead throwing weapons. The explosions would hit the hull like a drum beat. This would dislodge quantities of dust from the overheads which in machinery space would probably contain fair amounts of asbestos.
By the time I joined my last ship, everything had changed. Asbestos had been replaced by a silicon-based lagging which was yellow. Before the dockyard began working in machinery space it was worked out which pieces of lagging needed removing and the compartment was sealed off and men wearing rubberized, hooded overalls with gloves and respirators would remove all the necessary lagging and seal up any exposed ends. Normal access to that compartment would not be allowed until a chemise had certified that the atmosphere was clear of asbestos particles. So great was the paranoia about it that even a few flakes dislodged by an accidental hammer blow would be enough to have the compartment cleared and the process repeated. For me however, it was too late.
Approximately 75 of us Engine Room Artificer apprentices passed out of the training establishment. In recent years three of our numbers have passed away, I do not know what the cause was, but it would be interesting to know if asbestos was involved in any way. What is certain is that they went before their time. How many more of us have, like me, been affected by asbestos?
My asbestosis was diagnosed quite by chance. I was admitted to Queen Alexandra hospital with an undiagnosed respiratory disorder; query blood clot on lung? I was given a CT scan and later when the specialist saw me, I will never forget what he said, “We now know that what you have is pneumonia and there is no blood clot in your lungs. Oh, by the way, you have asbestos down there.” What I had was pleural plaques, which are where the asbestos fibres have lodged in the pleural membranes which line the chest cavity. The fibres have sharp pointed ends which irritate the surrounding tissue and so it protects itself by enveloping the fibres in a calcified coating. Shortly before I was diagnosed, the House of Lords gave a ruling that pleural plaques were no longer eligible for compensation. A second scan, some months later, revealed that I also had asbestosis. That made me eligible for compensation, as if a monetary value could be put on to an affliction which I now will have for the rest of my life. I would like to become an organ donor, but because of the asbestosis, my death will automatically trigger a post-mortem and so the window for removing healthy organs will be lost. I will have to wait and see whether or not this will develop into mesothelioma, cancer of the pleura. The general medical opinion is that mesothelioma can take between 20 to 70 years to develop. Time will tell if I am to be affected.
I have been attending HASAG’s coffee mornings. This is a support group for those affected by asbestos disease. I have met many sufferers and their families through this group, none of whom should even be in this position. HASAG Asbestos Disease Support is a group for people like me who have been affected by asbestos, their partners and dependants and all too often, their widows. It was founded and run by two sisters who lost their father to mesothelioma, as a result of being exposed to asbestos at the Eastleigh locomotive works. They hold monthly coffee mornings which are very friendly affairs that we enjoy attending.
I don’t want my disease to define me or my life, I just hope that there will be less people affected in the years to come.