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July 20, 2018

Inquest hears council worker 'most likely exposed to asbestos'

A former Epsom and Ewell Borough Council (EEBC) worker who died from mesothelioma was “most likely exposed to asbestos, though the circumstances of her exposure remain unclear”, a coroner has ruled.

Valerie Smith, 61, from Ewell, died on April 8 2014 from the rare type of cancer, which affects the lungs and abdomen.

An inquest into her death, which heard from other former council employees, was held on Tuesday (January 13) at Woking Coroner’s Court.

Ms Smith worked for Epsom and Ewell Borough Council between 1987 and 2010, initially at the Old Town Hall in Epsom.

In 1992, she transferred to the Parks and Recreation Department, based at the Rainbow Leisure Centre in East Street.

It was while working there that Ms Smith believed she was fatally exposed to asbestos.

The Rainbow Leisure Centre, previously the Epsom Baths, was refurbished in 1987/88 and it was believed that all traces of asbestos were removed from the building, and the majority of the pipes were replaced.

John Vadgama, manager of the centre in 1988, told the inquest: “If there was any asbestos, it would have been dealt with during the refurbishment.

“I worked at the Rainbow Leisure Centre from February 1988 and there were no issues arising of any asbestos being found.”

‘Not a designated person’

Ms Smith believed she was exposed to asbestos when walking through a passageway that went underneath the swimming pool, which she said she used two to four times a week to get to her office.

However, Mr Vadgama told the coroner that only authorised personnel could use the passage, which was accessed by four doors.

“I used to visit [the centre] once a week or in the event of something needed to be looked at,” he said.

“The reasons we kept people out of there [the passageway] was there was a valve to the main swimming pool, somebody could have opened that, and there were thermostats of the showers of the swimming pool.

“I think in the nature of anything, no system is absolutely perfect, I would say 90% to 95% of the time it was locked and 5% to 10% it was unlocked.

“There were three duty managers, a plant operator, deputy manager, assistance manager and myself, those people had keys and access to that area.

“It was necessary to access this area for maintenance, there was somebody down there every day, the keys would have been kept on the person, individuals did not have keys.

“I never encountered somebody down there who should not have been down there.

“Valerie Smith was not a designated person to be in the under passage, she worked in one of the offices.”

But the court heard that Ms Smith and some of her colleagues used the passage on a regular basis to access the parks office.

‘Disappointed’

During her time working at the Old Town Hall, asbestos was removed from the toilets on the ground floor and it was listed as having confirmed asbestos in an inspection some time after 1980.

Diane Brighton, Ms Smith’s sister, said: “She was exposed twice to asbestos, at the baths and at the refurbished toilets at the town hall.

“The asbestos was removed but it was 10 metres from the area she was working from, it was just plastic that covered it.”

Coroner Martin Fleming recorded a narrative verdict of death by mesothelioma.

“It’s most likely she was exposed to asbestos, though the circumstances of her exposure remain unclear,” Mr Fleming said.

Ms Brighton issued a statement following the verdict, saying: “At the start of this journey, it was made clear to us that the reason for the inquest was not to apportion blame or to point a finger, but to try to find out the circumstances of how Valerie came to contract this terrible disease [which led to] her ultimate death.

“We knew that it was going to be a difficult and complex case. Valerie was certain that she was exposed while employed at EEBC. 

“Unfortunately, due to time frames of 25-30 years ago, records and exact details have been difficult/impossible to obtain.

“Obviously we were disappointed that the coroner reached a narrative verdict.

“Ideally we would have preferred a definite conclusion, but we partly knew this was not going to be the case.

“We feel that we have done all that is asked, and retained pride and dignity for Valerie.”

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Inquest hears council worker 'most likely exposed to asbestos'