World Cancer Day 2014, an annual event organised by The Union for International Cancer Control, was held on Tuesday 4th February. This year, its central theme, “Debunk The Myths”, was  focused on the long term aims of reducing stigma and dispelling myths about cancer, including asbestos-related mesothelioma. Some 600 events were organised around the globe from the UK, Europe and the Americas to Africa, South East Asia, Western Pacific and the Middle East.

According to a new UN Agency report released on the day itself, cancer remains the biggest cause of mortality worldwide with an estimated 8.2 million deaths in 2012. Between 2008 and 2012, global cancer has increased by 11 per cent to an estimated 14.1 million and is forecast to rise by 75 per cent to nearly 25 million over the next two decades.

Based on 1994-2008 data, it has been estimated by researchers that an average of 14,200 mesothelioma cases are diagnosed every year around the world. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently reported that 92,252 people died of mesothelioma worldwide in the same period, two-thirds of those deaths occurring after 2000.

In the UK, more than 1.8 million people are annually exposed to asbestos with at least 2,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Despite accounting for less than 1 per cent of all cancers (2010), in males, it is the 17th most common cancer with a lifetime risk of developing the disease estimated to be 1 in 150 and 1 in 773 for women.

Asbestos exposure myth

One of the key asbestosis disease myths that persist is that exposure to asbestos and breathing in the invisible fibre particles is not immediately harmful. However, the Control of Asbestos Regulations set out clear control limits for those who are directly involved in working with white asbestos, to be:

  • 0.3 fibres per millilitre of air averaged over a continuous period of 4 hours.
  • 0.9 fibres per millilitre of air averaged over a continuous period of 10 minutes.

Asbestos risk myth

The presence of asbestos remaining hidden in as many as half million buildings built or renovated as late as 2000 means that the myth that because asbestos is banned and no longer used is, therefore, no longer a risk today, is clearly not true.

The continuing incidence of mesothelioma, which has increased significantly since the 1970s reflects the numbers of younger men and women who were exposed to the material as recently up until the 1980s when the first ban was introduced.

It is because of the gestation period of between 15 to 50 years from an initial exposure to the emergence of asbestosis symptoms that mesothelioma cancer is most strongly age-related, the highest incidence rates occurring to older people. Between 2008 and 2010, in the UK, an average of 80 per cent of mesothelioma cases were diagnosed in men and women aged 65 years and over, while just 9 per cent were diagnosed in the under 60s.

In addition, age-specific incidence rates rise steeply in males and gradually in females from around the age of 50, peaking in the 80-84 age group for both sexes. Incidence rates are higher for males than females for those aged 50 and over, the gap being at its widest between the ages of 80 and 84.

Raising asbestos awareness to the continuing dangers and long term fatal health risks of exposure in the UK and around the world is a key challenge to fighting cancer and finding a long term cure to mesothelioma.