According to Health and Safety Statistics figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 2019, there were 2,523 deaths from mesothelioma in the UK in 2017. Mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the lining of the organs and is caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers, can develop 50 years after initial exposure and it is now believed that the number of deaths is reaching its peak.
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Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral that was used extensively throughout the UK as an installation material and a fire retardant throughout the 1950s and 1970s. The use of blue and brown asbestos, which was deemed more a dangerous carcinogen than white asbestos, was banned in 1985. White asbestos was banned in 1999.
As the risks of brown asbestos were not fully considered until 1970, the UK, along with Australia, now has the highest rates of mesothelioma worldwide.
With the benefit of hindsight it is now obvious that is should have been banned earlier, but the specific evidence about brown asbestos was slower to emerge and at the time it would have been more difficult to see this.”
‘People are now paying the price for criminal failings by industry and the government’
Mesothelioma carries non-specific symptoms and is often diagnosed in its advanced stages as a result. It is usually fatal with prognosis only being 12 months. This asbestos-related cancer chiefly affects the pleura (the external lining of the lung) and peritoneum (the lining in the lower digestive tract).
It is men who are most at risk from developing mesothelioma, especially those who worked in the building and construction industries and in shipbuilding.
The long latency period of typically at least 30 years means that most mesothelioma deaths occurring today are a result of past exposures that occurred because of the widespread industrial use of asbestos during 1950-1980.”
In 2017, 2,084 deaths were attributed to men, which is a slight reduction in comparison to the increase in women’s deaths, which stood at 439. Over half of these annual deaths occur in people aged over 75.
The cases of mesothelioma in women are thought to be less directly related to occupational exposure. Many women would have been exposed to asbestos through inhaling fibers left on their husband’s clothing.
Roger Maddocks, a partner with the law firm Irwin Mitchell LLP who specializes in workplace injuries and illness, said:
“In many cases, people are now paying the price for criminal failings by industry and the government, who were responsible for the lack of action on the part of the Factory Inspectorate [the precursor to the HSE].”
Maddocks claimed that the Factory Inspectorate knew by the close of the 19th century that high exposure to asbestos put people at risk of life-threatening respiratory disease and that by the 1960s, the public were aware that even small levels of exposure carried risk.
“Despite that, people continued to be exposed, and in many cases heavily exposed, for years if not decades after the mid-60s,” he said.
Removing asbestos from UK schools will lead to more deaths
Now, the UK’s leading asbestos-related cancer expert Professor Julian Peto has claimed that a campaign to get asbestos removed from every school in the UK could result in more deaths from mesothelioma than if the asbestos was left in place.
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This is because removing the asbestos remaining in schools and workplaces across the UK would only release more dangerous fibers into the air.
It isn’t clear to me that the exposures are high enough. And in particular it isn’t clear to me that to do something about it wouldn’t increase the risk.”
Professor Julian Peto
As the Cancer Research UK Chair of Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Institute of Cancer Research, Peto said that the risk of dying from mesothelioma depends on whether a person worked indoors or outdoors as well as when they were born.
Trade unions are calling on the government to spend billions of pounds on the effort to remove asbestos from all UK schools.
Peto concluded that environmental exposure to asbestos fibers in the UK has fallen at least a hundred-fold since the 1950s, a claim based on analyses of samples of lung tissue. Exposure was so high in the 1950s that he believes it will take the lives of one in a hundred men who were born between 1938 and 1947 in the UK.
Regarding today’s children, Peto estimates that their risk of exposure to asbestos is 10 times lower than 50 years ago. This means 20 to 30 children will breathe in asbestos fibers that will cause their death in old age.
However, Peto’s claims have not gone unchallenged, with chairman John McClean saying, “There’s no central database of where asbestos is and what condition it’s in, so he’s making a presumption based on what?”
Mesothelioma support groups are in high demand
Jo Ritson, from the asbestos victims’ support group that covers South Yorkshire and north Nottinghamshire, spoke on the effect a mesothelioma diagnosis has on patients and how demand for the support group’s services was increasing. She said:
"For some people it hits them like a bolt out of the blue and they find it really difficult to understand that what they did as a young man in their 20s or while doing their apprenticeships is now ruining the retirement that they worked towards all their lives.
“But others tend to know it’s coming because they’ve seen a lot of their colleagues die from asbestos-related disease. For a lot of them it’s like a ticking clock and they don’t know whether it’s going to hit them or not.”
Although the Department for Work and Pensions said, “since the dangers of asbestos became clear, governments have, over many years, brought in regulations and legislation,” and claimed the risk of asbestos exposure was “extremely low”, some people affected by mesothelioma argue that, “Just because it is banned doesn’t mean it’s gone.”
“It’s in buildings that are forever being pulled down and refurbished, which can make it airborne.”
They highlight the need to educate young people about the risks of asbestos exposure, which is still an active risk, although much reduced, today.
The HSE predicts that cases of mesothelioma will remain at current levels for the next decade before they begin to fall.