Weekly ITV soap opera, Emmerdale, has put the asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma, in the limelight, after revealing that one of its characters, Donna Windsor, is suffering from the disease.

The terminal condition, usually associated with older men who were exposed to asbestos decades previously while working in the construction, shipbuilding and engineering industries will, in the soap, affect a relatively young woman, who doesn’t fit the stereotypical image. Symptoms of mesothelioma take on average 30 to 40 years or more to develop after exposure to asbestos.

Ian McFall, head of the National Asbestos Litigation team at Thompsons, commented: “An episode of Emmerdale attracts between six and eight million viewers, so this is a huge opportunity to raise awareness of this cancer which devastates thousands of families every year.

“Through our work with mesothelioma sufferers and their families, we see the tragic legacy of exposure to asbestos, usually as a result of employer(s) failure to protect workers from risks that were well known at the time. But, rather like the character Donna, an increasing number of people being diagnosed with mesothelioma have not been exposed to asbestos from traditional industrial sources.

“There is a tendency to think that asbestos exposure is a problem of the past but, in truth, the incidence of mesothelioma in the UK continues to rise and is not expected to peak until 2015.

“While it remains to be seen how this challenging storyline will be presented in Emmerdale, it is welcome that it will be brought to the fore in mainstream television so long as it is handled with sensitivity.”

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs and abdomen. More than 2,500 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the UK every year.