The mesothelioma fatality rate of around 2,120 each year in the UK is now expected to continue for at least another twenty five years, according to the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP). New figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have also revised up their estimated death rate caused by asbestosis diseases, from 4,000 to 5,000 deaths each year.

The renewed warning over high levels of fatality from the incurable cancer of the lung linings continuing until at least 2037 came during a recent parliamentary question time. In response to a question asking for the government’s latest estimate of the expected deaths from mesothelioma over the next 25 years, it was suggested that there could be between 49,000 to 58,000 deaths, based on current projections, and a potential total of 125,000 deaths from all diseases caused by exposure to asbestos fibres.

Persistent high number

Research clinicians, health organisations, mesothelioma victim support groups and asbestosis lawyers have continually drawn attention to the persistent high number of men and women diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma thirty years after the first asbestos ban in the UK.

Even though the use of asbestos fibres as an insulation and fireproofing material started to decline towards the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the incidence of mesothelioma and asbestosis as causes of industrial disease have increased in the UK almost four-fold in the last thirty years.

An increase each year

During the peak asbestos years in Britain between the 1940s and 1970s, combined asbestos imports increased from 124,000 tons to around 180,000 tons every year. Growing asbestos awareness to the long-term, fatal health risks eventually led to a ban on the most dangerous blue and brown asbestos fibre types in the mid 1980s, and finally, imports of white asbestos were stopped by the start of 2000.

Today, mesothelioma is recognised as accounting for just one per cent of all cancers, yet asbestos exposure is thought to be responsible for an increase each year to more than a half of all 8,000 occupational cancer deaths in England and Wales.

A number of factors

The continuing high numbers of men and women falling victim to asbestos exposure from decades earlier is due to a number of factors. The primary cause is the exceptionally long incubation period of between 15 to 50 years or more, which can often elapse from the initial period of exposure to the emergence of asbestosis symptoms and a confirmed diagnosis of the deadly disease.

Historically, the majority of exposures directly affected males aged 20 to 49 years working in the key asbestos using industries, such as shipbuilding, construction and industrial engineering who were most likely to be exposed to asbestos. 85 per cent of all mesothelioma deaths have occurred amongst men mostly aged 60 years and above. Over time and since the decline and total ban on using asbestos there has been a decrease in the number of males diagnosed with mesothlioma and asbestos-related diseases, and a visible increase in cases of female victims of mesothelioma.

A threefold increase

The mortality rates in the 45-54 and 55-64 age groups for females, in particular, have not reduced as strongly as for males. There has been a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970 and round 1,200 women are believed to have been victims of environmental and ‘secondary’ exposures to asbestos since 2008.

According to the HSE, there are still a high number of women aged between 70 and 74 who are diagnosed with mesothelioma caused, for example by ‘secondary’ exposure to their husband’s asbestos-contaminated workclothes. However, an increasing number of ‘environmental’ exposure cases now also involve women aged in their 50 or 60s who were continuously employed during the early part of their working lives through the 1970s and 80s as school teachers, nursery assistants, store assistants or factory workers in buildings constructed or being renovated with asbestos containing materials.

HSE have also found that an increase in the average “background mesothelioma risk” among both older women (and men) is due to exposure that is not readily identifiable but could have occurred in “any setting” during peak asbestos use in the UK between the 1950s to the 1970s / 80s.