The UK has the highest number of mesothelioma deaths per head of the population, according to a new study published in February 2018. It’s alarming news that some may find hard to believe but the reality is that the UK has consistently been found to possess among the highest global mortality rates for mesothelioma, the fatal incurable cancer of the lung linings caused by historical exposure to asbestos.

The UK also showed the highest number of female deaths from mesothelioma, while “significantly declining” among men over the last ten years – a finding also shared by the US, Canada, Sweden, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand.

The research, “Global Trends in Mortality from Malignant Mesothelioma” analysed records over a four-year period from 30 countries contained in the World Health Organisation (WHO) mortality database, as well as trends over nearly 20 years (1994 – 2013). While the UK showed the highest mortality rates, rates were also rising in Poland, Spain, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea, including among women in Poland, Argentina, and Korea.

Annual number of deaths has progressively increased

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 continued to rise in the UK by almost four-fold over the next thirty years. 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.

In 2000, following the ban on using white asbestos at the end of 1999, analysis suggested that the annual number of mesothelioma deaths in the UK would peak at around 2,450 deaths in the year 2015. However, since mesothelioma mortality was first monitored in the UK fifty years ago, the annual number of deaths has progressively increased, from 153 in 1968 to 2,542 in 2017 (“Occupational Lung Disease in Great Britain 2017”- Health and Safety Executive – HSE).

The prediction that the annual number of mesothelioma deaths would reach a reduced peak of about 2,100 deaths in the year 2016, has also clearly not happened, and the number of mesothelioma deaths, which climbed above 2,500 has not fallen back in more than four years. Some researchers now suggest that the average annual toll of 2,500 could continue at the same level or even higher until at least 2030.

At the end of 2016, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) pointed to latest HSE estimates, which indicated that 6 people could now die every day in England and Wales from mesothelioma. The number of male mesothelioma cases had 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 British Medical Journal (BMJ). In the twenty-first century, around 13,000 deaths from occupational lung disease and cancer are estimated to be caused by past exposure, primarily to chemicals and dusts at work, which includes mesothelioma fatalities.

Mortality is known to be mainly driven by males aged 75 and above

The continuing increase in annual mesothelioma mortality is known to be mainly driven by males 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 UK banned the use of asbestos, there has been a decrease in the number of males diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. However, the situation appears to be very different for female victims of mesothelioma, which show a visible 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.

Exposure cases now also involve women aged in their 60s or even 50s

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 work-clothes. However, an increasing number of ‘environmental’ exposure cases now also involve women aged in their 60s or even 50s 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.

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.