More than a quarter (27 per cent) of male mesothelioma cases were born between 1940 and 1965, is one of a number of key findings in a 14 year study supported by Cancer Research UK. The Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer Study (MALCS) – which ran from 1st January 2001 until 31st December 2015 – was a case-control study of mesothelioma and lung cancer linked to occupations among British men and women.

The primary aim of the study was to identify high risk exposure occupations leading to mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer. However, a further objective was to investigate if younger people are still being exposed to unsafe levels of asbestos in their workplace, specifically in countries such as India where exposure is not controlled in manufacturing industries. Latest available figures show that India had increased asbestos imports from 318,000 tonnes in 2015 to 370,000 tonnes in 2016 – up by 16 per cent.

Main occupations at most risk of exposure to asbestos

Information was collected from 622 people – men with mesothelioma or lung cancer, women with mesothelioma – and 1,420 people without cancer as a ‘control’ group for comparing results. The results of the study clearly underlines previous historical knowledge and asbestos awareness of the main occupations at most risk of exposure to asbestos, and the likelihood of developing the fatal and incurable mesothelioma cancer of the lung linings.

Key results…

Of the male workers who were exposed to asbestos in occupations considered at high risk in dockyards, shipbuilding, asbestos factories, power generation and insulation:

  • More than one in three (36 per cent) of male mesothelioma cases were born 1925-40 and more than one in four (27 per cent) of male mesothelioma cases were born 1940-65.

Of those men who developed mesothelioma during their lifetime and had worked in construction related industries for 10 years or more:

  • One in sixteen (6 per cent) were born in the 1940s and worked as a carpenter.
  • One in fifty (2 per cent) were born in the 1940s and worked as a plumber, electrician or painter.

The risk of developing mesothelioma in those individuals not exposed to asbestos but who lived with an exposed worker before the age of 30 is double the risk of the general population.

Exposure to asbestos also increases the risk of lung cancer as with mesothelioma, e.g. 1 in 10 of all British carpenters born in the 1940s are likely to lose their life to an asbestos related cancer.

Employers often failed in their duty of care

Britain’s peak years of asbestos use began from the 1940s until the late 1970s when the mineral fibres were used in the relatively low-cost production of insulation and fireproofing products right across British industry, including building, construction, railway engineering, shipbuilding, vehicle assembly and power generation. Imports during the 1960s rose from 169,500 tons at the start of the decade and peaked at 183,000 tons by the early 1970s.

From 1945, the national rebuilding programme also saw thousands of buildings, from residential housing estates to factories, retail stores, schools, nurseries and hospitals developed or refurbished using asbestos-containing materials. Today, the construction industry still warns that as many as half a million properties could still contain asbestos, and no building constructed or renovated up until 2000 should be considered asbestos-free.

The late 1970s decline in UK asbestos imports coincided with the introduction of legislation such as, The Asbestos Regulations 1969 (under The Factories Act 1961), which applied the first quantity control levels to workplace exposure, and The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, which requires employers to prevent their workers from being exposed to a health and safety risk. Across much of British industry, employers often failed in their duty of care to provide their workforce with protection equipment or to warn against the health dangers of exposure to asbestos dust.

Historical occupational exposure more widespread than is generally understood

Nevertheless, many cases are regularly reported which indicate that historical occupational exposure to asbestos was significantly more widespread in the workplace than is generally understood. Latest research, based upon investigating coroner’s data, reveal high mesothelioma mortality rates for metal working production & maintenance fitters, heavy goods vehicle drivers labourers in process & plant operations, managers in construction and production, and works & maintenance managers.

Mesothelioma is also diagnosed among “white collar” workers, from shopkeepers & wholesale/retail dealers and secondary education teachers to accounts & wages clerks, book-keepers and printers.

More than thirty years after Britain introduced the first mid-980s asbestos ban, exposure to asbestos continues to claim the lives of trade skill workers and maintenance men. In a ten year period, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that plumbers, heating & ventilating engineers recorded the third highest proportional mortality ratios. While nearly 600 carpenters and joiners had lost their lives to mesothelioma, more than 410 plumbers had become victims to the fatal cancer.

Today, more than 1.3 million people in the UK still come into occupational contact with asbestos, and building trade workers are still a high risk category. HSE predict that 90,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in Britain between 1970 and 2050 will include around 15,000 employed in the building industry.