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Tom King

Mention asbestos, and most people think of a historical health risk affecting past generations of industrial workers, but even today, workers in a wide variety of professions are at risk of cancer and other terminal illnesses from exposure to asbestos.

In the UK, around 500,000 non-domestic buildings contain asbestos - any building built or refurbished before 2000 could contain it - and it remains a very real threat. Every week, 20 tradesmen die from this hidden killer, and the numbers are increasing.

Tom King, 64, is one tradesman who, after exposure to asbestos through his work as a carpenter, contracted mesothelioma, a form of cancer.

He left school in 1958 aged 15 to work in a joiner's shop as an improver in Greenwich, London and the South East. His work involved renovating pubs and bars using asbestos materials including "soft board" (AIB) and asbestos cement, with jobs including cutting asbestos sheets and boards with a handsaw to fit fire insulation around pipes.

No masks were provided, and the dust from the asbestos materials used to get on his clothes which he would take home to wash after work.

He then worked at renovating houses for a number of small firms in Greenwich, which involved knocking ceilings and walls down to convert houses into flats.

Any asbestos found during the work was removed from the houses by him and his workmates - without any training on how to handle it - and thrown into skips for removal.

At no time was he told about the danger posed by asbestos. Tom said: "I wasn't aware of it, no one was aware of it, and there are a lot of people still not aware of it today. I didn't even realise there was a disease called mesothelioma".

"If I'd known about it, I would have put a mask on, or I would have refused to handle it, but I knew nothing about it then - nothing at all."

After experiencing chest pains and breathlessness in 2006, he visited his doctor. Tom said: "He thought I'd pulled a muscle, but two or three weeks later it was still the same. I went to the hospital to have a chest X-ray and had a sample taken from my lung, and when I went back they said I had mesothelioma. I asked the doctor what it was - I had never heard of it. I said: "What's the treatment?" He told me there was very little treatment - and that it's terminal".

His family were devastated. His son, Russell, said: "It's a family business that we run, and so my dad's such a big, central part of our lives and his illness has affected the family massively."

Tom was told he had about 12 to 18 months to live. He has since had one of his lungs removed, and cannot even lie on his left side as fluid caused by the disease, would fill his lung and drown him. Tom often gets short of breath, is unable to walk more than half a mile, and will need to have a further operation.

From his experience, Tom's main message to other tradesmen of all ages is: take proper precautions if you are working with asbestos or think there may be a risk of exposure, or you won't live to see retirement.

He said: "If I had known someone in the trade with asbestosis or mesothelioma, then I would have thought - this could happen to me too. But I didn't know anything about these diseases, and it did happen to me - learn from my example".

Tom advises: "If you are working in, say, a roof space, and discover asbestos, then go back down to your boss or your foreman, say "I've found asbestos - get someone in to remove it properly".

Russell added: "If you ever think you've come across asbestos, don't take the risk of attempting to remove it yourself. A lot of people in the industry still don't take asbestos seriously and I think they don't believe anything will happen to them. That is, until something happens to someone they know," he continued, "one of the big problems now is that younger trades people aren't aware that asbestos is a danger they face everyday. They think that because asbestos is banned it's all been removed. This of course isn't the case and any building built or refurbished before the year 2000 could contain the substance."

A final thought from Tom is, "You only live once, don't you want it to be for a long time?"

Updated 2012-10-04