In previous decades, one reason given for failing to catch asbestosis disease or mesothelioma at an earlier stage was because a victim simply thought of coughing or slight breathlessness as “being a bit chesty”, “getting on a bit” or as a result of a lifelong smoking habit.
We may live now in very different times but cigarette/ tobacco smoking was a “way of life” for many from the generations who grew up and worked in shipbuilding, railway engineering, auto assembly and manufacturing from the 1940s to the 1970s and 80s where asbestos was widely used in insulation products.
Both cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure can have a significant effect upon the risk of contracting lung cancer for those who were occupationally exposed. As recently as 2011, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published a report, which revealed that of the 1,878 lung cancer deaths among 98,912 UK workers who were exposed to asbestos, 2 per cent of lung cancer deaths occurred to those individuals who had never smoked.
The report also found that of those employees who worked with asbestos and who also smoked, an estimated 3 per cent of lung cancer deaths were caused by asbestos exposure, 66 per cent to smoking only, and 28 per cent to both asbestos exposure and smoking.
Three and a half times risk
Further research into smoking and exposure to white chrysotile asbestos also shows that there can be a three and a half times risk at least of contracting lung cancer from smoking by those working with a high asbestos exposure to asbestos cement, insulation, friction or textile products in contrast to those working with low asbestos exposure.
Crucially, 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, heart, or abdomen, and is only caused by the breathing in of airborne, asbestos dust fibres.
Despite mesothelioma cancer being responsible for less than 1 per cent of all cancers diagnosed in the UK, prevalence of the disease has increased almost four-fold since the mid 1980s, when the most toxic types of brown and blue asbestos were banned from use.
Between 1968 and 2008, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported there had been an 100-fold increase in mesothelioma fatality and there are still more than 2,000 cases of mesothelioma being diagnosed every year in the UK. In addition, HSE estimate that there are around 13,500 new cases of occupational cancer each year, of which 60 per cent are fatal, although the Trades Union Congress (TUC) claim that the true annual figure is likely to be more than 20,000.
Generally, survival rates of around five years for lung cancer patients are higher at 15 and 75 percent, while mesothelioma patients are considerably lower at 10 per cent with only a 4 to 18 months prognosis. If correctly diagnosed earlier about half of mesothelioma sufferers can expect to live for around two years, with 20 per cent surviving for five years, which drops to only 5 per cent for patients with advanced mesothelioma.