A FORMER college lecturer diagnosed with an incurable lung disease believes she contracted it after being exposed to asbestos at a North-East college in the late 1970s.

The legal team representing Margaret Curry, 73, from Durham, believes she was most likely exposed to the deadly asbestos dust and fibres during building work to remove asbestos sometime between 1975 and 1980, in the classrooms she worked in as a food science teacher at Darlington College of Technology.

The Northern Echo: Margaret Curry, who has been diagnosed with incurable lung condition mesothelioma

Margaret Curry, who has been diagnosed with incurable lung condition mesothelioma

Mrs Curry, whose maiden name was Callan, was diagnosed with the fatal lung condition mesothelioma – a cancer of the lining of the lung – in November.

The illness is caused by inhaling asbestos fibres and dust but it takes decades for symptoms to appear following exposure.

And last night concerns were raised that thousands of students and staff could have been exposed to the dangerous fibres during the building work at the old college site, on Cleveland Avenue. The institution moved a decade ago to its new-build site just off Haughton Road.

Dennis McCabe, the college's representative for the Universities and College Union, said: "I am shocked that a former member of staff has been taken ill.

"There were potentially thousands of students there at the time, and members of staff, and it's concerning to think how many people could have been exposed and wouldn't know about it until decades later."

However, solicitors from Irwin Mitchell said they "wanted to be careful about scaremongering" – as despite widespread exposure to asbestos in many workplaces during the 1950s to 1970s, there are still only about 2,500 cases a year.

The asbestos removal took place in classrooms and practical rooms where Mrs Curry regularly worked.

Her staffroom – where she spent most of her working day – was also next to some of the rooms being stripped of asbestos.

Mrs Curry, who has been married to her husband, Ian, for 36 years, said: "When the work was carried out at the college in Darlington, the workmen wore overalls which I believe were contaminated with asbestos dust.

"They passed through common areas in their overalls. The common areas near the rooms they were working in were noticeably dustier than usual."

Roger Maddocks, a specialised asbestos-related disease lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, who is representing Mrs Curry, said: "Mesothelioma causes a significant amount of pain and suffering for those like Margaret.

"The risks of developing mesothelioma as a result of 'bystander exposure' to asbestos dust have been public knowledge since the 1960s so to learn that people were exposed to the fibres much later is devastating for the individuals and families who come to us.

"Those who worked alongside Margaret may have important information on the presence of asbestos at Darlington College as well as details of safety measures, if any, taken to protect staff from exposure to it.

"We hope former colleagues, students and others familiar with Darlington College will come forward with this crucial information so we can get justice for Margaret.

"We would also like to hear from any of the workmen involved in removing the asbestos from the ceilings at the college."

Mrs Curry began to notice her symptoms, which include shortness of breath and chest pains, in September.

She was diagnosed after undergoing tests at the University Hospital of North Durham and the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle.

She said: "My diagnosis has come as a complete shock to me. To learn it has most likely come from exposure to asbestos while I was working has made me very angry. I just want answers for how I was allowed to be exposed to asbestos."

Mrs Curry also worked at Bernard Gilpin Secondary School in Houghton le Spring, from 1965 to 1968, and Elgin Senior High School in Gateshead in 1971.

A Darlington College spokesman said last night: "Darlington College has received no formal correspondence regarding this matter allegedly involving the former Darlington College of Technology site in Cleveland Avenue, which it left in 2006."

The National Education Union (NEU) – an amalgamation of the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers – is pressing Government to remove asbestos from all schools and colleges. Joe Waddle, principal officer of the northern region of the NEU, said: "While schools each have an asbestos management plan, how do we really know it is being reviewed properly? It is a grey area.

"There are so many schools still being used that were built in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The Government has ruled out removing asbestos due to cost but it is not going away."

  • Anyone with information about asbestos at the college, or potentially at her other workplaces, is asked to contact Michael McGowan on 0191-434-0704 or email Michael.McGowan@IrwinMitchell.com