“Clouds of dust were falling on us at every blow of the truncheon, but at that time we knew nothing about asbestos,” recalled Jesús Ropero Calcerrada, a 73-year-old man who was tasked with scraping asbestos from railway carriages during his working life in Beasáin, in the Basque country in Spain. He and others were not offered any protection from the asbestos they were removing, according to the workers’ committee.
Workers like Jesús, interviewed by Grupo Merca2, represent the most well-known group of victims of exposure to asbestos — older working men. Around 35 years ago, he and others removed the deadly mineral from wagons, armed with a truncheon and a crowbar. A year ago, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma and has to live connected up to an oxygen cylinder and receive morphine for pain.
“I have a wife, look how beautiful she is, and seven grandchildren for whom I’ll put up with whatever I can. At least I hope that they get something with the compensation,” he said a few weeks ago, referring to an attempt to get a settlement with his former employer.
Jesús Ropero Calcerrada died on 5 November 2022, a fortnight after he was interviewed for this investigation.
That bleak picture, of working men, drawn from heavy industries such as construction, the railways and the shipyards, is starting to change. A growing number of women have also been exposed to asbestos without knowing, and form an increasing percentage of the grim statistics.
Helen Bone, a 40-year-old former nurse in Middlesbrough, England, is one of them. Last year she was diagnosed with the aggressive cancer, mesothelioma — tumours forming in the protective tissues that surround organs including the lungs, stomach and pelvis. The cancer is overwhelmingly linked to exposure to asbestos. Bone was exposed to asbestos in both the education and healthcare sectors, as a pupil, patient and nurse — but has never directly worked with the substance.
“I was guilty of the thinking, that this was an old man’s disease. But the more you go onto the support groups, the more you notice how many women have it now,” she tells EUobserver.
Helen Bone’s case is not an isolated example. Many women like her have spent years working or studying in contaminated buildings — or even visiting them as members of the public. The presence of damaged asbestos in buildings — including shops, hospitals, schools and public buildings — is upending the traditional picture of asbestos victims.
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