The potential risk of falling victim to fatal mesothelioma can be as high as seven times the general population – even though you may never have directly handled asbestos and only worked in proximity to the material.

A recent study highlights once again the health dangers involved with any occupational exposure to asbestos, no matter how indirect, which can significantly increase the likelihood of developing mesothelioma or asbestosis disease.

Highly vulnerable to breathing in the fibre dust

The widespread use of asbestos as anti-corrosive, fireproof insulation throughout most manufacturing and construction industries was at its peak from the 1950s to the late 1970s. At the height of asbestos production during the mid 1960s, around 170,000 tons of asbestos were imported each year, until growing asbestos awareness to the fatal health risks led to the first ban in the mid 1980s.

It is well known that those employed within industries, such as shipbuilding, engineering, vehicle assembly, building and construction were most directly and regularly exposed to asbestos materials. However, many industry-related workers could also be highly vulnerable to breathing in the fibre dust by simply being in the same workshop or site area.

New US research into the sheet-metal working industry has revealed that the proportion of workers who died from mesothelioma increased simply according to the length of time they were employed in the trade.

Workers were also likely to be in close proximity

Sheet metal work typically involved the production of products, which were lined with asbestos-containing materials, such as boilers, ventilation systems, heating ducts, air conditioners, warm air blowers or refrigerators. The workers were also likely to be in close proximity to those installing or coating with asbestos insulating materials, such as jackets, gaskets and lagging.

The research initially found that the standardised mortality rates from all types of cancers showed no rise in sheet metal workers. However, mesothelioma mortality was more than seven times the normal rate, which rose to nearly ten times the normal rate after 40-50 years in the same job. The appearance of asbestosis symptoms, which invariably lead to a confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma, often occurs between 15 to 50 years from the initial period of exposure.

Analysis of the cause of death of sheet metal workers after nearly 25 years showed that 12 per cent had died from lung cancer, 6 per cent from COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and 1 per cent from mesothelioma. Most of the deaths from mesothelioma and asbestosis occurred 40 years or more after initial exposure.

Continuing high mortality rate

The research further underlines that the continuing high mortality rate for mesothelioma is most commonly caused by the long period of time taken for the cancer to develop and to spread. A significant proportion of all incidents of mesothelioma reported today are the result of exposures, which occurred prior to the first asbestos bans of the 1980s. Men who began work in asbestos-using occupations in their teens or early twenties during the 1970s and 1980s are now in their late fifties or early sixties and increasingly being diagnosed for mesothelioma or asbestosis disease.

The Health And Safety Executive (HSE) have previously stated that, “most mesothelioma deaths occurring now are a legacy of past occupational exposures to asbestos…” and was likely to still be high in many industrial sectors for years after the first ban. HSE expect a high mesothelioma mortality rate to continue until at least 2040.