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At least one in three Europeans could potentially be exposed to asbestos at work and in the environment

07 May 2015

A recent report made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has found that about 1/3 of the 900 million people in the WHO European Region live in countries that have not yet banned the use of all forms of asbestos.

WHO Logo

These findings urged a high-level meeting based in Haifa, Israel, on the environment and health of Europe to appeal urgently to all countries to eliminate asbestos related diseases.

Asbestos related health effects

Individuals who have been exposed, or suspect they have been exposed, to asbestos fibres in their workplace, through the environment, or at home via a family contact should inform their doctor about their exposure history and whether or not they experience any symptoms. The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not become apparent for many decades after the exposure. It usually takes between 10 and 50 years for an individual to develop any symptoms of an asbestos related disease. It is particularly important to check with a doctor if any of the following symptoms develop:

  • Shortness of breath, wheezing, or hoarseness
  • A persistent cough that gets worse over time
  • Blood in the sputum (fluid) coughed up from the lungs
  • Pain or tightening in the chest
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Swelling of the neck or face
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue or anaemia

Known asbestos-related diseases

Diseases commonly associated with asbestos include:

Pleural plaques: a discrete fibrous or partially calcified thickened area on the lungs which can be seen on X-rays of individuals exposed to asbestos. Although pleural plaques present no symptoms, in some patients this develops into pleural thickening.

Pleural thickening (or diffuse pleural thickening): similar to the above and can coexist with pleural plaques, pleural thickening covers a much larger section of the lungs. Usually there are no symptoms shown other than coughing and shortness of breath, but if left undiagnosed can cause extensive lung impairment. You can read more about pleural thickening on our blog.

Asbestosis: a progressive fibrosis of the lungs of varying severity, progressing to bilateral fibrosis, is a honeycombing of the lungs on radiological view with symptoms including wheezing. You can read more about asbestosis on our blog.

Mesothelioma: mesothelioma is a type of lung cancer that most often starts in the lining of the lungs, but can also start in the abdomen. In its early stages, mesothelioma does not have many symptoms, whether it is in the chest or the abdomen. When symptoms do develop, they are often caused by the cancer growing and pressing on a nerve or another organ. Symptoms of mesothelioma can include:

  • Pain in the lower back or the side of the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating and high temperatures
  • A persistent cough
  • Losing more than 10% of your weight when not dieting
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A hoarse or husky voice

Lung cancer: lung cancer is a malignant lung tumour characterised by uncontrolled cell growth in tissues of the lung. Tobacco smoking and asbestos have a synergistic effect on the formation of lung cancer. In smokers who worked with asbestos, the risk of lung cancer is increased considerably compared to the general population.

The report presented at the meeting in Haifa indicated that asbestos is responsible for about half of all deaths from cancers developed at work. According to new estimates, deaths from mesothelioma in 15 European countries cost society more than 1.5 billion euros (over £1.1 billion) annually.

Eliminating asbestos related diseases

A statement from WHO’s Regional Director for Europe, Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, says: “We cannot afford losing almost 15,000 lives a year in Europe, especially workers, from diseases caused by exposure to asbestos.”

Figures from the Health and Safety Executive in the UK show that more than 2,500 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma, an asbestos related disease, in the UK each year. According to the Department for Health and Pensions, 53,000 people will die from pleural mesothelioma in the UK between 2013 and 2037.

Dr Jakab went on to say: “We urge all countries to leave the Haifa meeting to fulfil their 2010 commitment and develop policies by the end of this year that will eliminate asbestos related diseases from the face of Europe.”

There are currently 15 countries in Europe that have not yet banned all forms of asbestos. These are: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

EU Logo

Elimination was one of the major issues discussed at the meeting. Over 200 representatives of European countries and international and non-governmental organisations attended the meeting to evaluate overall progress on environment and health in Europe.

Who are the European workers mostly likely to come into contact with asbestos?

Everyone is exposed to asbestos at some time during their life. Low levels of asbestos are present in the air, water, and soil. However, most people do not become ill from their exposure. People who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they worked directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact.

From the terrible experiences suffered by workers within the UK who were exposed to asbestos, it is likely that people who work, or have worked, in a similar trade to them throughout Europe will suffer as well.

Trades which were most at risk from coming into contact with asbestos include:

  • Labourers
  • Pipefitters
  • Plasterers
  • Carpenters
  • Demolition and wrecking crews
  • Insulation workers
  • Roofers
  • Tile setters
  • Ship builders

Because workers from various trades can share a single jobsite, it could only take one negligent worker to place many people at risk. Asbestos dust can spread around jobsites easily and expose people who never even handled asbestos directly. Even worse, workers could bring the dust home on their clothes, hair or tools, which could place their families at risk of secondary exposures, which can be just as deadly.

Paving the way

The five original time-bound targets adopted by countries in the European Region in 2010 are to:

  • Provide safe water and sanitation to all children by 2020
  • Create healthy and safe environments for children in their daily life by 2020
  • Make children’s indoor environments free from tobacco smoke by 2015
  • Safeguard children’s environments from toxic chemicals by 2015
  • Develop policies to eliminate asbestos-related diseases by 2015

All European countries present at the meeting renewed their pledges to work towards meeting the targets developed in 2010. This includes steps to:

  • Strengthen or establish partnerships with different stakeholders and processes, and utilize already existing policy instruments and tools
  • Enhance the understanding and use of economic arguments to support action on environment and health
  • Harmonise with the forthcoming post-2015 sustainable development agenda

They also agreed to address the environment and health challenges of the 21st century posed by:

  • Complex risk factors: air, water, waste or chemicals
  • Complex systems of direct relevance to environment and health: food, energy or cities
  • Matters of international environment and health security: disasters and climate change

Further reading

One in three Europeans potentially exposed to asbestos, new UN study shows

At least one in three Europeans can be exposed to asbestos at work and in the environment

What is asbestos?

53,000 British people will die from mesothelioma between 2013 and 2037, according to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)


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