Possible exposure to asbestos at RAF base
Leicestershire-based Jerry Lakin served in the RAF between 1973 and 1996. In 1984, he was based at RAF North Luffenham where he, and many others, worked in a converted hangar. He remembers an environmental health technician visiting the hangar and installing monitors. It was thought that they were to monitor dust levels but nothing was ever mentioned about asbestos.
Jerry moved on and was based overseas and at other bases until 1993 when he returned to RAF North Luffenham. By this time, Jerry remembers that parts of the building were closed off and civilian contractors were there removing asbestos. Still nothing was mentioned to those working there about potential asbestos exposure, and at no point were they given any personal protective equipment.
On 6 April 1996, Jerry was discharged from the RAF on completion of his 22- year engagement.
Asbestos exposure revealed in record of service
Later, in 2015, Jerry made a shocking discovery when he requested to see his armed forces record of service.
After Jerry had left the RAF, he was researching his father’s military career when he discovered that it was possible to request your personal record of service, which includes some medical records. Jerry ordered it and a large envelope of documents arrived.
Among the documents was a record of Jerry’s visits to the doctor, which were few and far between. However, the record card had been stamped with the words ‘This person has been employed in an asbestos environment’.
The fact that a stamp had been produced to mark the health records shows that there was a high number of people to whom it applied.
No notice of danger from asbestos
Jerry says: “This shows that the RAF were aware of the asbestos hazard from at least 1 May 1984 but continued to employ us in the contaminated building without informing us of the hazard or providing us with protective clothing.
“I estimate that there were approximately 60 people employed in the building (both service and civilian) and there were numerous visitors. There were no warning notices regarding the asbestos hazard.
“When I was discharged from the RAF in April 1996, I was not advised of my asbestos exposure or of the nature of possible symptoms that might be experienced. Details of the exposure were not passed on to the NHS.”
Jerry continues: “In 2014, my wife, Linda was diagnosed with mesothelioma which is a terminal cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fibres. Her diagnosis took four years and was partly hampered by a lack of knowledge of any asbestos exposure and that her GP was unfamiliar with the disease.
“Because the time between first exposure to asbestos and diagnosis of mesothelioma is usually between 20-25 years, the disease is usually detected when it is advanced.
“It is entirely plausible that my wife was exposed to asbestos dust while laundering my contaminated clothing.”
Sadly, Linda died of mesothelioma in December 2018. She was a volunteer for the national asbestos-related cancer charity, Mesothelioma UK and was passionate about raising awareness of the disease. Read Linda’s story here.
Advice for military personnel
Realising that the asbestos exposure was known about but never mentioned to the personnel has shocked and angered Jerry. Being only too aware of mesothelioma and asbestos since his wife’s diagnosis, Jerry went to see his own NHS GP to have the potential exposure noted on his records as armed forces records aren’t transferred to NHS ones once a person leaves service.
Mesothelioma is notoriously difficult to diagnose and many GPs don’t routinely ask about asbestos exposure. It took four years for Jerry’s wife, Linda, to be diagnosed.
If a person is aware that they may have been exposed, and can inform their GP at the first sign of illness, it can be taken into account to potentially speed up diagnosis.
Jerry advises any former military personnel to access their record of service and inform their GP if they may have been exposed to asbestos.
By sharing his experience, Jerry is carrying on Linda’s work and helping to inform others of the dangers of asbestos.