World Cancer Day draws attention to health risks of asbestos exposure

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Last Thursday was World Cancer Day, and attention was focused partly on work-related cancers, including the ongoing battle against devastating health problems caused by asbestos exposure.

It is estimated that occupational cancers in general, account for around 5% of the total number of cancer deaths in the UK each year, with asbestos exposure being cited as the leading cause of work-related cancer.

Mesothelioma is an aggressive, incurable type of cancer that affects the outer lining of the lungs (the mesothelial tissue), and is attributed to breathing in asbestos fibres. The extended latency period of this disease, which can be as long as 50 years, means that those working in construction and other industries where usage of asbestos was high, remain at significant risk of life-threatening illness.

No protection for workers in industry

There was little protection for construction workers, or those in the shipbuilding, automotive and locomotive industries, when asbestos use was at its height. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, asbestos-containing materials were commonly seen in household products and vehicles, thanks to the inherent insulating and fire-proofing properties of the substance.

Ceiling tiles, partition walls, central heating systems and vehicle brake pads, were just a few items that contained asbestos, which not only put workers at risk, but also endangered the health of their loved ones.

This was because many workers returned home in overalls covered with asbestos dust and fibres, unknowingly putting their families at risk of secondary exposure. Asbestos manufacture was big business at the time, and little consideration was given to the potential health risks to those working with the substance.

‘Safe levels’ of asbestos

In 1966, a study of the dangers of asbestos was published by the British Occupational Hygiene Society, after which so-called ‘safe levels’ were set for asbestos exposure. This measure proved inadequate, however, and asbestos continued to endanger the health of thousands of UK workers in a range of industries throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Julian Peto, a professor of epidemiology, studied the number of asbestos-related deaths during the 1970s, and in 1977 presented a damning report on the asbestos industry to the Advisory Committee on Asbestos.

A significant increase in deaths

Statistics showed a large increase in mortality rates during this time, and with around a quarter of those who died having no connection to the asbestos manufacturing process, it became clear that people working in construction and other industries were in severe danger of ill-health simply from being at work.

A subsequent report showed the equipment that was provided to protect workers against asbestos inhalation was sub-standard, following which immense pressure was put on the government to ban asbestos in this country.

It wasn’t until 1999 that a full ban became law, however, which was too late for many victims of asbestos exposure who went on to suffer mesothelioma and other work-related cancers.