In 2010, there was an estimated 2,000 asbestos related lung cancer deaths, according to Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB).
Many former employees who spent much of their working lives in occupations where they directly handled asbestos materials and were also lifelong cigarette smokers can often miss, disregard or be confused by the early signs of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, cigarette / tobacco smoking was particularly prevalent in the heavy industries of north England and the Midlands, such as shipbuilding, railway engineering, vehicle assembly and manufacturing where the lack of asbestos awareness to the deadly health risks was commonplace.
Lifelong smoking habit
Often former workers delay in seeking asbestos advice because they think that the onset of breathing difficulties and a cough is due to “getting on” or a lifelong smoking habit and are more likely to be concerned that they may have developed lung cancer.
A period of 50 years or more can elapse from the initial period of asbestos exposure and the connection to a cough is not easily made, even though the victim may recall the circumstances of working with or being surrounded by asbestos material at their place of work.
The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure is known to significantly increase the chances of developing lung cancer but equally, can be reduced when a smoker quits the habit. Unfortunately, at a late stage of development, mesothelioma cancer cells may have spread to adjacent tissues or organs and life expectancy reduced to less than 6 months.
Even the first signs of an asbestos-related disease, such as shortness of breath, chronic cough, sweating, “tight chest” or general chest pain are similar to a number of other common types of respiratory disease, such as influenza or pneumonia.
Mesothelioma confused with lung cancer
The difference between mesothelioma and lung cancer can also be confused at first as exposure to asbestos can cause both conditions, even though the two occur in different tissues of the body. While lung cancer is a disease which affects just the lung tissue, mesothelioma attacks the lining of the lungs and is only caused by the breathing in of airborne, asbestos dust fibres.
According a Health and Safety Executive survey of nearly 100,000 workers who were exposed to asbestos over a 35 year period up until 2005, just 2 per cent of lung cancer deaths occurred to those individuals who had never smoked, while those who worked with asbestos and who also smoked, an estimated 3 per cent of lung cancer deaths were due to asbestos only, 66 per cent to smoking only, and 28 per cent to the combination of asbestos exposure and smoking.
In a separate study of smoking and exposure to chrysotile ( white) asbestos, it was found that the risk of lung cancer from smoking by those working with high asbestos exposure to asbestos cement, insulation, friction or textile products was at least three and half times more than those with low asbestos exposure.
The prognosis for lung cancer is generally more optimistic than for mesothelioma. Depending on the stage the disease has reached, between 15 and 75 per cent of lung cancer patients might survive for around five years but fewer than 10 percent of mesothelioma patients can expect to live for two years or longer past a confirmed diagnosis.
Despite mesothelioma cancer being responsible for less than 1 per cent of all cancers diagnosed in the UK, incidence of the disease has increased almost four-fold since the 1980s when the first UK ban was introduced.