This is the story of how a case of ordinary back pain turned into a long, slow wait to learn the awful truth about a chest X-ray …
Once upon a time firemen in asbestos suits rescued children from burning buildings. Curtains had asbestos woven into them to prevent house fires. Every ironing board had an asbestos panel to rest the iron on. During the war, the gas masks that were issued to everybody in the country, man, woman and child, had a filter containing, you guessed it, asbestos. Over the years the asbestos in gas masks must have killed more people than the Luftwaffe. Anybody dealing with the tiniest amount of the stuff now arrives on site dressed as an astronaut; in the past, nobody wore any protective equipment whatsoever.
Picture this. In the early 1960s, a young boy of 15 leaves school and rides his bike to work for the first time. He is starting a six-year apprenticeship in carpentry and joinery (yes six years – those were the days). I was quickly introduced to the joys of asbestos in all its forms (for I was that boy, dear reader). Being carpenters, we didn’t use asbestos all the time but it was a standard building material. We used it for bath panels, garage ceilings, roof soffits, for boxing-in pipes and turning ordinary doors into fire-check doors. Every building constructed in the 1950s and 1960s was full of asbestos. Even now I bet I could still find some of it in most buildings.
The week before I wrote this I found asbestos sheeting on the soffit of a first-floor oriole window.
We used to cut soft asbestos with hand tools and with power tools. It produced millions of grey motes that hung in the air for hours on end, drifting in the sunlight. When the dust finally settled it covered every surface; people were covered in it from head to foot. I used to travel home from distant jobs on the bus still covered in asbestos dust.
Fast forward to August this year, and our hero is out of sorts and off work with a bad back.
My GP sent me off to the local hospital for an X-ray. Ten days later (how can it take 10 days for the results of an X-ray to turn up?) the results arrived. The GP told me that it did not show any fractured or slipped vertebrae and that I should take things easy and rely on pain killers – exactly the same advice a doctor would have given me 200 years ago, but I’d have been able to get laudanum rather than the paracetamol.
As I got up to leave, the GP added that the X-ray also showed that I had a large shadow on my left lung that was likely to be associated with asbestos use, and he was arranging a hospital visit with a chest specialist.
It was a couple of weeks’ wait to see the specialist. During that time I was, as they say, in denial. I convinced myself that there could not be anything wrong with me. When the day finally arrived and I saw the consultant, we both peered at the X-ray image on his computer screen. There was indeed a large shadow on my left lung. He told me gently that the pains in my back were probably caused by a tumour in my left lung, and that the tumour was probably caused by asbestos. But I’d have to take a CAT scan to make sure.
As I got up to leave, the GP said the X-ray also showed that I had a large shadow on my left lung that was likely to be associated with asbestos use, and that he was arranging a hospital visit
During the 10 days I spent waiting for the scan I looked up asbestos-related diseases on the internet and managed to scare the living crap out of myself. Then I started to write my will and wondered who would look after my Biggles book collection when I was gone. But on the other hand I stopped worrying about eating fatty foods.
After I had the scan, it was another fortnight before I was due to see the consultant again. I arrived at the hospital for the appointment at two o’clock and proceeded to sit in the waiting room for two hours, the weight of dread slowly pushing me further down into the uncomfortable plastic seat. Patients came and went but I remained, waiting for the pronouncing of my death sentence.
At four o’clock I was called into the doctor’s office. I fully expected him to put on a black cap as I sat down. Again we both peered at the CT scans, but this time he had happy news to break. There was, he said, no tumour in my lung.
Woody Allen once said that the most wonderful thing one human being can say to another is “it’s benign”, but I can assure him that “there is no tumour” is even better.
What the scan did show was that both my lungs were filled with asbestos, and that this had been coated in calcium as part of my body’s natural defence mechanism. With a bit of luck they would not cause any trouble. I may have misunderstood that part, but if I have please don’t bother to tell me. It was these “pleural plaques” that had shown up on the X-ray as a shadow. My back pain was just back pain after all; I think I can live with that.
I left the hospital to the strains of Staying Alive, kissing with nurses and dancing with the porters as I went; well, not really but I certainly felt like doing that … it seems I would not have to die a slow and painful death after all.
And what is the moral of this tale, dear reader? If you worked on asbestos when it was a wonder material then go to your doctor and find out if there is anything that can be done. Also there are firms of solicitors who specialise in handling compensation claims from people with asbestos-related diseases. If you’re in a union, consult them. There have been a number of new materials introduced over the past few years, and dare I say they are being called wonder materials. How many of them will be the asbestos of the 2020s?
John Smith is a clerk of works for Cluttons