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Tribute to fireman who died from asbestos contamination doing a job he loved

Dushal Mehta
22/01/2018

Although the content of the story is tragic, I'm very pleased that the family of a client who died from mesothelioma saw their husband and father recognised for his bravery in the national press.

The Sun recently ran the very sad story of 73-year-old John Nicholls, a father and grandfather, who received an MBE for services to the fire brigade, having joined up at 17 and worked at the job he loved for 40 years. So desperate was John to sign up as a fireman, he told a white lie about his age and pretended to be 18 to be accepted into the service.

Tragically, during that time, he was unknowingly exposed to asbestos used to coat fire-retardant blankets and gloves. He also used to attend fires in barns roofed with corrugated asbestos. At the time, fireman were not provided with protective clothing nor warned about the dangers of asbestos dust.

In April 2012, John complained to his GP about breathlessness and backache, the classic symptoms of mesothelioma. An MRI scan revealed a mass in his lung for which it was too late to received treatment and he died a year later.

His son Treve, who, like his parents, has lived in Penzance his whole life and works in the trawler industry, said that his father loved the job and was completely dedicated to doing service for the community. "It was his life's passion and he made life-long friends while he did it," Treve said.

As a retainer fireman, John worked part-time at the fire station and part-time as lorry driver.  Later in life, his wife Phyllis suffered ongoing ill health and John also became her carer.

Determined to progress this case for his widow and their children, I found witness evidence about working conditions from former colleagues and from fire station log books and finally won a substantial settlement from Cornwall Council, responsible for the fire station, to provide care for Phyllis, part of which Treve said was being used to adapt their home to make it easier for her to cope without her husband.

Treve said it had been incredibly difficult for his mother to lose his father. They were married for so many years and completely dedicated to each other.

Tragically, mesothelioma affects people like John who have worked hard all their life in a job they love, unknowingly being exposed to fatal asbestos dust and then their reward is this terrible illness.

Mesothelioma is a horribly cruel disease, which can take 30 years to appear. In the past, it was mostly people such as labourers, construction workers and shipbuilders who physically handled asbestos who were affected. But we're now seeing more and more cases of civil servants such as teachers, nurses and fireman affected by this terrible disease.