Latest mesothelioma figures for the UK reminds us all once again that the legacy of Britain’s widespread use of asbestos during the last century is very much still with us and is expected to remain at the same high level for the foreseeable future.

Just two weeks after this year’s Action Mesothelioma Day – an annual commemoration for all those innocent victims who have died as a result of exposure to the deadly fibre dust and to raise asbestos awareness of others who continue to suffer – the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have published their latest “Statistics on Fatal Injuries in the Workplace in Great Britain, 2016”.

The HSE report indicates that the number of people who lost their lives to a fatal injury in the workplace had remained at near the same level, but rising slightly from 142 in 2014/2015 to 144 in 2015/2016. The figures for mesothelioma also suggest an unchanging picture of mortality caused by historical asbestos exposure. The number of deaths from the incurable cancer is, for the third year running, over 2,500, and the trend looks likely to continue until at least 2020.

Deaths caused by occupational mesothelioma can be counted directly

Each year around 13,000 deaths from occupational lung disease and cancer are estimated to have been caused by past exposure, primarily to chemicals and dusts at work, which includes mesothelioma fatalities. Most occupational cancers usually have to be estimated rather than counted, which means the HSE will generally exclude statistics on work-related deaths caused by fatal diseases if it cannot be clearly  determined that they are the result of occupational factors. However, the safety watchdog is able to report on asbestos-related mesothelioma because it is one of the few examples where deaths caused by an occupational disease can be counted directly.

Exposure to asbestos is still one of the single biggest causes of UK work-related fatality, which has accounted for 80 per cent of deaths among males. According to previously published figures from the HSE, the number of mesothelioma deaths in 1968 was 153, which rose to 2,347 in 2010. Despite a slight fall in the number of deaths in 2011, the forecast for the annual number of mesothelioma deaths was thought to reach a reduced peak of about 2,100 deaths in the year 2016. Clearly, there has not been the expected decline in peak mesothelioma mortality.

Mesothelioma deaths not fallen back in the last three years

According to previously published figures from the HSE, the number of mesothelioma deaths in Britain, which climbed above 2,500 have not fallen back in the last three years. There were 2,515 mesothelioma deaths in 2014, a slight drop but a similar number to the 2,556 deaths in 2013 and up on the 2,549 deaths in 2012. Subsequent mesothelioma mortality predictions have since been revised up to around 2,500 each year towards the end of this decade.

The continuing increase in annual mesothelioma mortality in recent years has been driven mainly by deaths among those aged 75 and above. Historically, most exposures directly affected males aged 20 to 49 years working in the main asbestos using industries, such as shipbuilding, construction and industrial engineering. 85 per cent of all mesothelioma deaths occurred amongst men mostly aged 60 years and above. Over time, and since the decline of use since the introduction of asbestos bans in the mid 1980s and finally in 1999, there has been a decrease in the number of males diagnosed with mesothlioma and asbestos-related diseases, compared to a visible increase in cases of female victims of mesothelioma.

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.

Increasing number of ‘environmental’ exposure cases now also involve women

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.

Far from being consigned to history, the damage and suffering caused by 20th century use of asbestos fibres as a low-cost source of insulation in almost every aspect of British life seems set to continue to peak and affect thousands of lives for a decade or more to come.