According to the Health & Safety Executive, the number of deaths caused by mesothelioma is set to peak in 2018, but predictions of the rise and fall of this terminal lung cancer have been wrong before.
In 2005, figures published in the British Journal of Cancer predicted that mesothelioma would peak within 10 years in the UK and the highest number of deaths per year would be between 1,950 and 2,450. After this peak, the mortality rate was expected to fall rapidly to a background level, depending on what residual exposure to asbestos, if any, still persisted.
At the time Professor Peto, Chairman of Epidemiology at The Institute of Cancer Research, said: “The peak in mesothelioma deaths will be earlier and at a lower number than formerly thought. The abrupt reduction in asbestos exposure in 1980 has altered the lifelong patterns of exposure that people have experienced.”
Then in 2009 The Health & Safety executive predicted that the expected number of mesothelioma cases amongst males was projected to increase to a peak of 2,038 in the year 2016, according to the research report ‘Projection of mesothelioma mortality in Great Britain’.
All predictions were wrong. In the past ten years, the number of deaths from mesothelioma has rocketed by nearly a third. Now the HSE has changed its peak forecast to the year 2018 and currently says that more than 2,500 people in the UK die of mesothelioma every year.
At the moment no-one is expecting the UK’s mesothelioma death rate to dramatically fall. The Department of Work and Pensions has suggested that more than 53,000 British people will die from mesothelioma between 2013 and 2037. In early 2016 the Government set aside £5 million for the National Mesothelioma Centre and better research into the incurable cancer.
Even when Professor Peto made his comments back in 2005 he acknowledged that uncertainties remain as to the future of mesothelioma mortality. He said: “We’ve assumed that exposure to asbestos has now reached a negligible level, but we don’t know that for certain and it won’t be clear from the statistics for thirty years.”
There are a number of reasons why forecasting UK mesothelioma deaths is so difficult.
Low asbestos exposure still risks mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is a dreadful terminal lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos dust and fibres. The cancer usually develops in the lining of the lungs between 10 and 50 years after exposure. There is no cure and treatments are limited, although research and access to clinical trials are improving.
— The NAH (@asbestos_help) February 10, 2017
Mesothelioma is unlike other asbestos-related lung diseases (such as asbestosis and asbestos-related lung cancer) because it does not require high and regular exposure to the deadly dust and fibres for the cancer to develop. It is legally and medically accepted that very low exposure could potentially lead to a person developing the aggressive lung cancer.
Dr Robin Rudd, a leading medical expert on asbestos disease, has said: “Mesothelioma is a rare tumour in persons who have not been exposed to asbestos… [It] can occur after low level asbestos exposure and there is no threshold dose of asbestos below which there is no risk.”
Asbestos is still present in a lot of buildings
Asbestos was not banned in the UK until the year 2000 and it could be present in any buildings constructed before its ban. If it is disturbed or degraded, asbestos presents a real danger to health. When asbestos dust and fibres are released into the air anyone nearby could breathe them into their lungs. If trapped in the lungs there is a risk the dust and fibres could do catastrophic damage.
To this day the HSE continually highlights the danger of asbestos in work and in our homes. It provides information about where asbestos could potentially be disturbed in commercial and residential properties.
While asbestos remains within the UK’s factories, homes and offices, there will always be a risk of mesothelioma if the asbestos is disturbed.
We don’t know the impact on tradesmen and handymen
While we may be coming to the end of a generation of heavily exposed industrial workers – like laggers, shipbuilders, power plant workers, factory workers and construction workers exposed during the 1950s and through to the 1980s – we do not know the full impact on other occupations exposed more recently while working within the UK’s older buildings.
There are generations of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, decorators, plasterers, and builders who have all come into contact with the asbestos still present in industrial, commercial and residential properties. How mesothelioma will impact on them will not be known for decades.
We don’t know the impact on DIY enthusiasts
The presence of asbestos in homes built between the Second World War and the Millennium means mesothelioma could be a legacy of the DIY boom during the 1990s and early 2000s. The HSE provides information about where asbestos can still be found in residential properties.
Television and DIY was the main leisure pursuit of men according to polls in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Home and DIY television programmes were immensely popular. From 1996 the BBC’s DIY make-over show ‘Changing Rooms’ was getting viewing figures averaging between 11 and 12 million. The growing consumer importance of DIY and home improvement suppliers (B&Q and Homebase) was further evidence that the UK’s favourite past-time was DIY and renovation (Britain since the Seventies: Politics and Society in the Consumer Age by Jeremy Black 2004).
It will be another 10 to 30 years before we know how many proud home owners will face a diagnosis of mesothelioma.
We don’t know the impact on schools
It is also widely accepted that any school building to have been built before the year 2000 is likely to contain some form of asbestos.
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has said that up to 300 adults die each year because of exposure to asbestos dust and fibres while at school. Through the Freedom of Information Act, BBC Yorkshire obtained figures from 135 councils in England that show there are at least 12,600 council-run schools where asbestos is known to be present. It is thought that the actual number of schools that contain asbestos is likely to be much higher, as many schools have become academies and are therefore not included in the figures.
Around 86% of schools contain asbestos and deaths from mesothelioma are increasing. It is estimated that between 200 and 300 former pupils are dying each year as adults because of exposure at school.
No-one knows what will happen next
Ronan Kennedy, from the National Asbestos Helpline, says: “We talk to people every day who have been devastated by past exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma is cruel and unforgiving. Families are left grieving for loved ones snatched from them in a matter of months, when they expected them to live many more years.
“Sadly, despite attempts to predict the mesothelioma death rate, we really don’t know what is going to happen over the next couple of decades. It’s our worry that the asbestos legacy will continue to destroy the lives of tens of thousands of people and their will be no significant drop in mesothelioma deaths in the UK for many years to come.”