When the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently released the latest available mesothelioma fatality figures, a “significant” increase was clearly in evidence. Figures revealed more than a 10 per cent rise from 2,291 in 2011 to 2,535 in 2012 – close to the projected upper limit of a peak expected to occur between 2015 and 2020.

Thirty years have passed since the first UK ban on the most toxic blue and brown fibre types, and fifteen years following the official halt on white chrysotile imports. Despite decades of progressive asbestos awareness, revealed by advances in knowledge and analytic techniques, fatality levels continue to devastate the lives of men and women exposed to asbestos, often accompanied with a variety of predictions for expected rates.

While it is generally observed that males aged 20 to 49 years were historically most likely to be exposed to asbestos, and 85 per cent of all mesothelioma deaths occur amongst men mostly aged 60 years and above, varying statistics are often published when fatality levels are forecast to peak.

Predicted peak mortality levels tend to be based upon historical peak exposures related to growths in worker populations in asbestos using heavy industries, estimated to have rapidly risen from the 1930s to the late 1960s. Other events include the introduction of Asbestos Industry Regulations from 1931 onwards.

Peak exposure years

From the 1950s through to the late 1970s combined asbestos imports increased to a peak level from around 124,000 tons to around 180,000 tons every year. As a result, it is suggested that the peak years of exposure were between 1960 and 1966, likely to impact males in the early years of their working lives in asbestos-using industries, such as shipbuilding or construction. In many instances, a period of up to 50 years or more may elapse before asbestosis symptoms appear and mesothelioma confirmed.

As a consequence, and in line with previous HSE research, it has been predicted that the number of mesothelioma cases amongst males is projected to increase to a peak of 2,038 around 2016 and around 91,000 deaths are predicted to continue by 2050.

Differing peak fatality years

However, fatality data collected up to 2001 suggests that a peak number of mesothelioma deaths amongst all males reported was to be around 1,857 deaths between 2011 and 2015 – lower than the peak of 2,038 deaths predicted by 2016. The newly published 2012 figures, showing more than 10 per cent rise to 2,535 clearly questions the forecasting based upon the 2001 data. A further factor may be attributed to the use of updated projections for future population growth.

Different estimates of peak mesothelioma mortality have also been predicted in other countries. In Australia, the peak is expected at around 700 cases per year in 2010, In France, a peak of around 2,200 cases per year is expected after 2020 whereas in the Netherlands to 900 cases per year of pleural mesothelioma is expected around the year 2028. The projections indicate that although the number of deaths has rapidly increased in recent years, mortality may not reach a peak for several years to come.

The mesothelioma mortality peak expected in Britain by around 2016, which was reported prior to the release of the 2012 figures, is also accompanied by a continued rate for the next 15 years. HSE estimates the following figures:

Year – Total
2015 – 2420
2016 – 2431
2017 – 2438
2018 – 2438
2019 – 2432
2020 – 2410
2021 – 2389
2022 – 2358
2023 – 2324
2024 – 2286
2025 – 2226
2026 – 2171
2027 – 2101
2028 – 2024
2029 – 1946