Are we in the middle of an asbestos-related epidemic? Or is the continuing tragic loss of life to incurable mesothelioma simply the inevitable result of two stark facts – environmental exposure to asbestos still hidden in millions of buildings and the unusually long time it takes for the cancer to develop?

In the latest example of a worrying trend, a women just 70 years old has died from mesothelioma, caused by breathing in asbestos dust. Despite the diagnosis, she had no idea that her cancer was the result of exposure to asbestos while working at a factory and communications company during the 1960s and 70s.

Recently the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reported that the UK- along with other developed countries – are on the verge of an epidemic expected to peak by around 2020. The number of male mesothelioma cases has steadily risen by more than 11 fold between the 1970s and 2011, and by 8 times over for female victims of the fatal disease during the same period, according to the BMJ. Just in a ten year period – between 2000 and 2011 – mortality rates have increased by 20 per cent and 40 per cent in men and women, respectively.

Widespread presence of asbestos consistently highlighted

The raising of asbestos awareness to the persistently high mortality rates draws attention to the potential dangers of its presence in properties built or renovated up until the first asbestos ban in the 1980s and for at least another 10 – 15 years following. An increasing number of victims of asbestos exposure have never worked with asbestos or even knew that they were in potential danger of breathing in the airborne dust particles.

The widespread presence of asbestos in schools, colleges and nurseries has been consistently highlighted – at least 75 per cent of the nation’s 28,950 schools are likely to still contain significant amounts of asbestos – and the mortality risk to many female teachers, pupils and other schoolworkers remains a key issue. However, an increasing proportion of mesothelioma cases now involve female victims in their 50 and 60s who worked at everyday occupations in buildings constructed or being renovated with asbestos-containing materials at any time from the 1960s through to the 1980s at least.

Asbestos-related disease always been  high

In June 2014, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that the number of mesothelioma deaths had increased by nearly 11 per cent in just one year to more than 2,500 in 2012. There had been a threefold increase in the average female mesothlioma mortality of those aged under 65 since 1970, and in 2015 HSE also revised up their estimated death rate caused by asbestosis diseases, from 4,000 to 5,000 deaths per year.

But are the reported increases sign of an epidemic? It may be argued that deaths from asbestos-related disease have always been high. But could it be more the case that the banning of asbestos has caused a change over a period of time?

Latency period

The majority of victims of asbestos exposure were males aged 20 to 49 years who worked between the 1940s and the 1980s in the key asbestos using industries, such as shipbuilding, construction and industrial engineering. 85 per cent of all mesothelioma deaths used to occur 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 asbestos-related diseases, which has made visible an increase in cases of female victims of mesothelioma. HSE suggest that around 1,200 women are believed to have been victims of environmental and ‘secondary’ exposures to asbestos since 2008.

The other important factor is the well-known “latency period” or time delay from an initial exposure with the ‘potential’ for cancer cells to develop, which is eventually triggered, causing tumours to start to form. Between 15 and 50 years or more may pass before to the eventual emergence of asbestosis symptoms. Simply, those women who were unaware they were working in buildings constructed or renovated with asbestos-containing materials, even as recently as 2000, now make up an increasing number of mesothelioma cases.