Mesothelioma fatalities rise in Britain again, according to figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), released July 2018. There were 2,595 deaths in 2016 (latest available data), up from 2,547 in 2015 (HSE – Mesothelioma Mortality in Great Britain, 1968-2016). By comparison, workplace injuries data released by HSE at the same time show there were 144 deaths caused by accidents at work in 2016, underlining the enduring impact of historical exposure to asbestos.

The widespread occupational asbestos exposures which occurred up until the 1980s and beyond mean that the number of lives lost to mesothelioma, the incurable cancer of the lung linings, is predicted to continue on its upward path beyond 2020. Growing asbestos awareness to the long term health risks of asbestosis diseases had, over a period of fifty years, seen the slow introduction of government legislation to help protect an ever wider number of workers from the potential risk of exposure. Finally the most dangerous brown and blue asbestos fibre insulation was banned in the mid 1980s. However, white asbestos was allowed to be used for another 15 years, mostly for building materials.

These figures underline that the long-term increase in mesothelioma deaths has been mostly driven by deaths among men aged 75 and above. Nearly 85 per cent (2,197) were male compared to 398 females – around 1 in 6 –broadly similar to previous years.

Exposed to asbestos-containing materials in many types of industries

Young men who began their working lives in the 1950s and 60s could find they were regularly and frequently exposed to asbestos-containing materials in many types of industries, from shipbuilding, building and construction, railcoach and vehicle assembly to textile factories, power plants, paper mills and oil refineries. Many other industries also employed men to maintain and replace asbestos used to insulate machinery, heating boilers and hot water pipework. Tragically, the 1960s and 70s were the peak years for asbestos use with more than three million tons imported into Britain over the two decades alone.

The HSE figures are also reflected in the additional number of new cases of mesothelioma assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) in 2016. Of 2,170 mesothelioma claimants, 240 were female, compared with 2,130 in 2015 of which 220 were female.

Gradual shift in the age group of mesothelioma victims

Analysts previously predicted that the annual number of mesothelioma deaths would reach a reduced peak of about 2,100 deaths in the year 2016. Mesothelioma as a cause of industrial disease has continued to increased in the UK almost four-fold in the last 30 -35 years. It is now believed that the average annual number rising well above 2,500 will continue until at least 2030. One study concluded that the number of deaths could actually reach more than 2,800 every year by 2025 (‘Projection of Mesothelioma Mortality in Great Britain’ – Tan and Warren, 2009).

Recent research shows that there has been a gradual shift in the age group of mesothelioma victims. Between 1968 and 1972, nearly all of the deaths (90 per cent) occurred to patients below the age of 74. However, between 2009 and 2013, the proportion of those who died aged 74 and above had risen to 50 per cent.

Victims living longer lives are more likely to develop mesothelioma

Researchers conclude that a larger proportion of exposure victims are living longer lives and, as a result,  are more likely to develop mesothelioma. The reason is attributed to the exceptionally long period of time in which the potential for cells to turn cancerous lays dormant. There is usually a 15 – 50 year time lapse from an initial period of exposure to the first symptoms appearing, such as constant coughing, breathlessness and tight chests.

Studies also show that the severity of exposure to asbestos is related to the length of time the disease remains dormant. Those individuals who experienced only low levels of exposure to asbestos would have longer periods of dormancy and would therefore, develop mesothelioma only if they survive into their 70s or older. For each 10 year reduction in age for a first exposure below the age of 30 there is a doubling of the mesothelioma risk. Each 10 year increase in life expectancy beyond the age of 80 also doubles the mesothelioma risk.

HSE say that a Freedom of Information request found a high percentage of female victims are aged 70 -74, i.e. those born in the late 1930s early 1940s. However, increasing numbers of mesothelioma cases now also involve women aged in their 50 or 60s who were continuously employed for several years as teachers, factory workers or even store assistants during the early part of their working lives in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s. According to the Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COC), half of female mesothelioma could now be caused by the presence of asbestos in schools.