Asbestos continues to be the cause of the “largest proportion of the overall burden of occupational cancer”, according to the conclusion of the British Journal of Cancer in a report supplement issued in June 2012.

While cancers of the pancreas, breast, stomach and the skin, for example, are well known as the focus of research into their causes and treatments, asbestos awareness becomes a factor made apparent in the report.

Attention is drawn to “a small number of carcinogens, which have been responsible for the majority of the burden of occupational cancer”, and considered relatively high when compared to fatalities caused by occupational accidents and other types of injury affecting long-term health.

The findings of the report supplement point to an estimated half of occupational cancer deaths and a third of cancer registrations were the result of past exposure to asbestos in the workplace. The report singles out mesothelioma, the fatal incurable asbestosis disease known to be solely caused by asbestos exposure, as responsible for the overwhelming majority of the occupational cancers.

Recent figures issued by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show nearly a 14 fold increase from 153 deaths recorded in 1968 to more than 2,080 deaths caused by mesothelioma in 2005. This total had risen again by another 8 per cent to reach just under 2,250 by 2008.

The incidence rate for mesothelioma in the UK is still growing, and it is projected the figures will continue to rise to at least 2020 with some estimates suggesting a further 45,000 deaths could be expected until 2050.

The chief reason for the projected high numbers is due to the exceptionally long gestation period of up to 50 years or more from first asbestos exposure and a confirmed diagnosis when the first mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms emerge. The most toxic forms of brown and blue asbestos were only banned from use in the mid 1980s while white asbestos, considered low risk because of its curly form fibres, continued to be used in the building industry until importation ceased in 1999.

However, more than 1.8 million people are still annually exposed to asbestos and despite mesothelioma  accounting for less than 1 per cent of all cancers, around 2,400 people continue to be diagnosed with mesothelioma in the UK every year.