The recent court case involving the death of an employee who had spent decades working with asbestos has led to speculation that many more cases are waiting in the wings, not only related to asbestos, but also to its de facto replacement mineral wool, which became widely used after asbestos was banned. The widow of a 79-year-old man who died as a result of spending 36 years of his working life being repeatedly exposed to asbestos particles settled her High Court action earlier this year. Máire Ní Uiginn’s husband, Michael Higgins, worked as a sales director in Britain and Ireland for a UK insulation company and he died from malignant mesothelioma, a lung disease caused by asbestosis, on December 19, 2015. Law firms expect that further cases will come to court, both for asbestos-related illnesses and deaths, as well as those caused by mineral wool, or Manmade Vitreous Fibres (MMVF) as mineral wool is also known.
Ms Ní Uiginn sued her late husband’s employers Cape plc of Jersey, Channel Islands, Cape Insulation Ltd, Middlesex, England, Cape Ireland Ltd, Dublin, and Cape Intermediate Holdings, also Middlesex. The defendants accepted liability and the case was presented before the court for the assessment of damages only. Ms Ní Uiginn claimed they had failed in their duty to take reasonable precautions for the health and safety of her husband. Between 1956 and 1991, Mr Higgins’ work involved going to various commercial premises and building sites under the control of the defendants during which he was repeatedly and continuously exposed to asbestos particles. As a result, he developed mesothelioma which ultimately caused his death.
Although asbestos has been banned, it is likely retrospective cases will still be brought to court. It also seems clear that just because asbestos has been banned, its successor mineral wool poses similar health risks. EU Today published a report that found that the health risks of mineral wool are comparable with those of asbestos. The report quotes Dr. Marjolein Drent, professor of Interstitial Lung Diseases at the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Maastricht University, in the Netherlands as saying: “The effects of the fibres of glass wool and stone wool can be compared to those of asbestos. In the past we did not know asbestos was very dangerous. The results of the effects of fibres in glass wool and mineral wool are only being seen right now, so we must deal with it carefully. The point is that these substances are harmful, but people do not realise it sufficiently, and that is something we have to worry about. It is too easily accepted that ‘we have a replacement for asbestos’. But the replacement may not be as good as we thought it was at the beginning, there is insufficient attention given to this fact.”
It seems somewhat staggering that we have allowed the replacement for banned asbestos to be a material that poses a similar level of health threat. Mineral wool was originally classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Agency on the Research on Cancer (IARC) as carcinogenic and hazardous to humans. The mineral wool industry then altered the composition of their product, which then underwent further tests. In 2002 mineral wool was declassified as a carcinogen. However, it has now emerged that the product as tested was different from that which is commercially available, in that an important ‘binder’ had been removed. There are calls for re-testing by the European Chemicals Agency (ECA), this time with tests being conducted on the product as sold, not a variant with the binder removed.
One solicitor based in London said: “Employers will become more wary about the substances they have their employees work with. That seems a natural result of these court cases. It’s likely we will start to see cases around mineral wool, just as we are seeing over asbestos.”