John McCann

Watching her husband of almost 44 years succumb to mesothelioma was a heartbreaking process for Maria McCann. John died earlier this year at the age of 66, just 12 months after retiring from his trade as a joiner. Chief among Maria's thoughts today is that they were robbed of so much time together.

"That's the hard part of it all," she said. "When you retire you are going to do this, that and everything! And you look forward to it. John told me he would have hoped for more than a year, but he was a very philosophical man and just accepted it. He got on with things, he was quite courageous and he enjoyed what he could for as long as he could."

She describes John as being an active man who loved sport, particularly football, which he played well into his late fifties. In Maria's words he was as "as fit as a fiddle", she adds, "At that point he would play football at the weekends and cricket perhaps one evening each week during the summer, and when he was younger, he coached a couple of boys' football teams around the Wavertree area of the city. He also helped to train Gary Ablett who went on to play for both Liverpool and Everton, Maria added, "They were quite successful teams, they won a few trophies - he loved teaching the kids."

Even at this stage of his life, the asbestos dust he came into contact with while fitting roofing panels, boxing pipework and hanging fire doors may already have been in his lungs. John worked from the age of 17 and was never warned of the material's dangers or provided with a proper face mask, Maria said, "It was probably early on in his career that he picked it up - he may not even have been 30."

John worked across the North West and Wales. Although he never mentioned asbestos by name, Maria remembers how irritated he was at having to work with the material, "He would come in all mucky from work and tell me about 'that damn stuff'." Around 500,000 buildings in the UK contain the deadly material which tradesmen come across during maintenance and refurbishment work.

Maria wants her husband's story to act as a warning to today's young tradesmen, many of whom will encounter asbestos on older building sites. The warning is part of the Health and Safety Executive's campaign, 'Asbestos - the hidden killer', aimed at young workers who know asbestos is dangerous, but don't believe they are at risk.

The first sign that something was seriously wrong with John's health came in September 2006 just before the couple were due to fly to Majorca. John was becoming short of breath and suffered throughout, Maria said, "The holiday wasn't really a success, he started to get chest pains and that was the beginning of it."

At first, the symptoms were dismissed as age-related weariness or as a chest infection, but an appointment at Broadgreen Hospital's Cardiothoracic Centre in Liverpool was arranged and a thoracoscopy carried out - the lung test was done on his birthday, November 16th. One month later, the day after he retired, John was diagnosed with mesothelioma, the terminal lung cancer.

John's own experience with asbestos left him determined to pass on the message of preventing exposure, Maria said, "He would want young people to take more precautions, like wearing face masks, on site."

Just before his death, John spoke of his concern for young people starting out in trades and called for apprentices to be trained about the potential risks of all the materials they are likely to encounter, he said, "I can't change what's wrong with me, but other people can. You know, they can stop it."

Maria said the families of all tradesmen risk a tragedy like hers, but they can also play an important role in getting the importance of John's message across, "You think it will never happen to you but you can never tell. I would advise families to make sure their loved ones follow every precaution - keep them safe. John loved his grandchildren and, although Patrick (9) has been affected most, Gene (2) is old enough now to point at photos and say 'there's Granddad'."

Six joiners die every week as a consequence of exposure to asbestos dust while at work. Asbestos is a real and relevant risk to today's tradesmen, any building built or refurbished before the year 2000 could contain the deadly substance.

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Updated 2023-05-16