By Ananya Mandal, MD
A third wave of asbestos-related cancers is emerging as the rate of malignant mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos during home renovations increases dramatically, according to new research.
Former asbestos manufacturers James Hardie and CSR have been accused of failing to systematically warn people that asbestos products in their homes could have fatal consequences if they were demolished.
Researchers from the University of Western Australia's School of Population Health examined all West Australian malignant mesothelioma (MM) cases between 1960 and 2008. In their findings published in the Medical Journal of Australia, they found the proportion of cases due to home renovations among women increased from about 5 per cent of cases in the 1990s to more than 35 per cent between 2005 and 2008. Among men, the rate went up from about 3 per cent to nearly 8 per cent in the same period. They found of the 1631 people (1408 men and 223 women) diagnosed with MM during the period, the cases of 55 men and 32 women were linked to home renovations. Out of the total group, 1562 died. The main cause of MM in men was exposure to asbestos through their work, including asbestos mining and milling.
Lead researcher Nola Olsen said the number of home renovation cases was likely to continue rising given the amount of older properties still containing asbestos products coupled with the growing popularity of DIY renovations. “Asbestos-containing products such as asbestos cement sheets are still found in many homes, particularly older homes and fences,” she said.
“Our study shows that exposure in the home, at a time when people were less aware of the health issues and these asbestos products were still legally available, have unfortunately had dire consequences for some.” But Ms Olsen noted MM was still uncommon and the risk of developing the disease was relatively low for people exposed to asbestos in the home.
Co-author Peter Franklin said people did not need to be exposed to the asbestos for long. “These people did renovations on their home, either over a weekend or a few weeks,” Dr Franklin said. “Obviously your risk increases the longer you deal with this, but what we're saying here is single events like this have led to these outcomes,” he explained.
The Cancer Council's Occupational Cancer Risk Committee chairman, Terry Slevin, says home renovations have led to a third wave of asbestos-caused disease. He says the first wave of asbestos-related deaths struck miners, then trades people were hit and now there are others at risk.
“This third wave now has the potential to reach far more people, obviously because it's in the home renovation stage, and the prospect is, if we live in properties that were built between 1920 and 1990, there could be asbestos in those properties,” he said.