LONDON – A recent study published in the British Journal of Cancer contained some sobering statistics related to the number of UK workers and others who can be expected to die from exposures to asbestos, a known cancer-causing agent. The study was funded by Cancer Research UK and Britain’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and it is the largest scientific investigation of its kind ever conducted in the UK. The study was an interdisciplinary effort that included contributions from physicians, bench and clinical researchers, epidemiologists, statisticians, etc., and one of its findings (for example) was that one in 17 carpenters in the UK can expect to die from occupational exposures to asbestos.
Asbestos is an extremely common and naturally occurring mineral that can be excavated from the soil or extracted from numerous types of above ground rock formations. Once widely utilized by myriad industries because of its superior resistance to heat, electricity, and harsh corrosive chemicals, asbestos was used in automotive parts, insulation, building materials, and dozens of other products that are now largely banned around the world. Asbestos can be identified in a variety of types, chemical compositions, and colors, though, in the early 1970s, researchers and health professionals concluded that exposures to microscopic, airborne asbestos fibers can pose a significant threat to human health.
Once asbestos is disturbed and fibers become airborne, the brittle and needle-like fibers can be inhaled into the lungs where they become permanently embedded in soft lung tissues. These fibers can remain dormant and undetected for up 50 years before finally causing the onset of serious respiratory diseases such as asbestosis-a severe scarring of the pleural lining of the lung that leads to decreased lung function-airborne asbestos fibers are also responsible for causing peritoneal mesothelioma, an aggressive, deadly, and incurable form of cancer. Due to the former prevalence of asbestos, to this day, the extremely toxic substance can be found in older structures and countless products that pose a severe threat to anyone who encounters airborne asbestos fibers.
With 1,749 deaths in 2005, Great Britain has the highest rate of asbestos-caused mesothelioma fatalities in the world, a disturbing fact that, in part, led to the recent Cancer Research UK and HSE study and subsequent report. Other findings in the report state that one in 50 plumbers, decorators, and electricians will die from asbestos exposures, and one in 125 construction workers will suffer a similar fate. Researchers find the highest mortality rate in those who had a 10 years long exposure to asbestos before they had reached age 30.
The asbestos-caused cancer study stated that, in 2005, mesothelioma deaths accounted for one in 40 of all cancer deaths in patients under the age of 80, and that 288 of the deaths were in women. The study concluded that the lifetime risk of mesothelioma amongst all UK men who had been born in the 1940s was approximately one in 170 or 0.59%. The research report was based on the study of 600 patients who had mesothelioma, as well as 1,400 disease free individuals in order to determine which occupations were deemed to carry the greatest risk of contracting the disease. Overall, approximately 2,100 UK citizens are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.
Additionally, the study concluded that, for each case of mesothelioma, asbestos was also responsible for one case of other types of lung cancer. The report also states that approximately two-thirds of UK men and one-fourth of all British women had occupational exposures to asbestos at some point in their life; the study also cites an increased risk of asbestos-caused disease in those who live with an individual who had been exposed to the toxic material. Health and worker safety officials are now expected to use the report’s findings to push for even stricter nationwide controls on asbestos.