SWINDON has one of the highest asbestos cancer death rates in the country, new figures show.

Between 1981 and 2017, the latest year for which numbers are available, 237 men died as a result of exposure to the substance.

The figure puts Swindon 24th out of 380 council areas across England and Wales.

And in the past four years, deaths have increased markedly, according to the Office for National Statistics figures. Between 2013 and 2017, 55 men lost their lives to mesothelioma – compared to 38 in the four years before.

Mesothelioma is a form of lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. It is more common in industrial towns and cities, with many of the Swindon cases linked to the GWR Works.

Reacting to the latest figures, Liz Darlison of charity Mesothelioma UK, said: “Many people still think that asbestos is a problem of the past and that asbestos-related illnesses only occur in tradespeople or people who have worked in the construction industry.”

The news comes as relatives of those who have lost their lives to mesothelioma are expected to meet today for an annual memorial event at Queen’s Park.

Doves will be released during the event, which starts at 11am in the town centre park.

Last year, there were calls from organisers and attendees for more support for mesothelioma sufferers in the town.

Jennifer Seavor, a specialist asbestos lawyer at Royds Withy King, said: “Swindon would really benefit from a specialist mesothelioma nurse at GWH. I think mesothelioma is sometimes seen as a problem of the past.”

That was far from the truth, with her oldest client who sought compensation aged 89 and her youngest a 19-year-old woman.

“Asbestos doesn’t discriminate,” Ms Seavor said. “Swindon with its proud industrial heritage bears a disproportionate burden of asbestos illnesses.”

Lesley Lambert’s husband died aged 71: “It’s one cancer they can’t do anything about. It was a shock when our husbands were diagnosed. They were all fit, healthy men.”

Former Swindon mayor and chairman of the Queens Park Community Council, Stan Pajak, said of mesothelioma: “It’s not a disease of the past. It’s very much a disease of now.”