The Fire Brigades union and union lawyers Thompsons are warning of an increase in the number of former firefighters in the West Midlands developing asbestos-related diseases.

They are advising firefighters who believe they have been exposed to asbestos in the course of their duty to seek advice from their GPs.

The warning came as a former Birmingham firefighter who developed the asbestos-related condition of pleural plaques told of the constant anxiety caused by knowing that he could develop a fatal illness due to asbestos exposure.

Thompsons Solicitors made claim for compensation

Ken Dutton, who worked for the West Midlands Fire Service from 1961 to 1990, was diagnosed with the condition in March 2000 after his doctor recommended that he have a scan.. His claim for compensation, which was taken by trade union law firm Thompsons on behalf of the Fire Brigades Union, has settled out of court for £14,000.

Although pleural plaques, scarring of the lung tissue due to asbestos exposure, are often symptomless, they are an indication that the sufferer may develop a more serious, and possibly fatal illness later.

Mr Dutton says he is constantly worried that he might develop mesothelioma, the always fatal asbestos cancer that kills around 1,800 people a year in the UK.

"I know that mesothelioma is exceptionally painful and incurable. The knowledge that I have a risk of developing a condition that could kill me in this way is in the back of my mind all the time."

Exposed to asbestos tackling fires and on training

Ken Dutton was stationed at Sparkhill, Moseley Road and Bournbrook fire stations. He was exposed to asbestos dust and fibres both when tackling fires and during training exercises in places where asbestos was present.

"I worked with a large number of other fire fighters clearing up after a very large fire in an underground tunnel at the British Leyland plant at Longbridge. There was dust and debris everywhere. I also attended a fire at the premises of 'Abdullah's Carpets' where an asbestos roof collapsed. We were not told to wear breathing apparatus during the cleaning up."

Monthly training exercises would take place in tunnels, boiler rooms and underground passages where there were asbestos lagged pipes and boilers, which was often dry and crumbling.

"I believe it was the training that caused me to develop this condition. There were lumps of asbestos falling off around us. And we didn't wear breathing apparatus when we were clearing up. In those days I think we did as we were told, rather than raising concerns. The compensation I have received is minute when you think of the danger I and my colleagues were put in, year in and year out."

There are a number of asbestos-related conditions

Tony Nutting, FBU West Midlands acting regional secretary, said: "There are a number of asbestos-related conditions which vary in severity. I urge any firefighter or former firefighter who thinks they have been exposed to asbestos to speak to their GP. Of course it is to be hoped that there are very few cases, but those who are diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease should seek legal advice from the FBU immediately."

Peter Mulhern, Ken Dutton's lawyer at Thompsons in Birmingham, said: "It is a tragic fact that we are seeing an increasing number of former firefighters diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. The risks associated with asbestos exposure were well known and yet their employers failed to warn them and to provide protection."

Thompsons Solicitors is representing another former firefighter with pleural plaques and the widow of a firefighter who died of mesothelioma after 20 years service with the West Midlands Fire Service.