Asbestos-related disease is responsible for 4 in 10 deaths from occupational cancer in Europe, a rise of nearly 60 per cent on previous estimates, according to figures in a new report, “‘Eliminating Occupational Cancer in Europe’, published this week by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).

The report also shows that Britain has the second highest figure for occupational cancer in Europe following Germany but ahead of France and Italy.

Of the 102,500 total number of occupational cancer deaths within the 28 countries of the EU, asbestos causes up to 47,000 fatalities every year, nearly two thirds up on previous estimates of 30,000. Analysts fear that the real toll is likely to be higher still, as certain asbestos related cancers and those caused by environmental and domestic “secondary” exposures are excluded from the calculation.

The figures also show that the number of occupational cancer deaths in Britain was 13,330, second highest in the EU below 17,706 in Germany.

The grim news that mortality from mesothelioma and asbestosis diseases continues to rise is alongside the numbers of deaths from occupational cancer, which are predicted to increase by more than three quarters over the next 20 years. EU experts estimate that 500,000 people in northern EU countries will die from asbestos-related causes by 2035.

Clearly highlights the marked rise in occupational cancer mortality

Since the Europe-wide ban on asbestos in January 2005, growing life expectancy and gradual reduction of other causes of death, such as contagious diseases and injuries now clearly highlights the marked rise in cancer and occupational cancer mortality. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 666,000 deaths worldwide are caused by occupational cancer every year, double that of occupational accidents. It is also twenty times the number of deaths caused by occupational accidents within the EU.

The Report found that 53 per cent of workplace deaths were caused by cancers, nearly double the 28 per cent for the second highest cause, circulatory disease, and nearly nine times more for respiratory diseases, in third place at 6 per cent. Workplace accidents and contagious diseases accounted for only around 2.5 per cent of fatalities in the European workplace.

Occupational carcinogens affect 1 in 5 workers in the EU or 23 per cent of those employed. Asbestos continues to be the most frequent cancer-causing agent in the UK among the 85 per cent of cancer cases from the top ten of chemical agents, including mineral oils, diesel oils, silica, dioxins, radon, chromium and insecticides. In 2011, white asbestos was confirmed as a Class 1 carcinogen at the Government Office for Science who said there was “no threshold level”, below which, exposure would not be considered a risk to health.

Current figures relate to historic exposures during the peak of industrial asbestos use from the 1950s to the late 1970s / early 1980s. The proportion of cancer deaths attributable to occupational causes in the UK was 5.3 per cent (8 per cent among males), which equates to 8,010 cancer deaths and nearly 14,000 cancer cases.

Rapidly becoming the biggest killer at places of work

The Report states that cancer at work is rapidly becoming the biggest killer at places of work in most countries. It says the growing risk needs to be urgently eliminated via a gradual reduction of occupational exposures, in particular to carcinogens, in premises known to cause or contribute to work-related cancers.

According to the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, “ hazardous exposures at work, school and home” remain a “fact of life” despite regulations and guidelines on minimising asbestos exposures in the UK”.

“Unless the government agrees to implement a national policy of asbestos eradication, the UK will continue to see an increase in avoidable asbestos-related deaths at a time when we already have the worst asbestos mortality rates in the world.”

In the UK, the latest available figure reported by the Health and Safety Executive show there were more than 2,500 mesothelioma deaths in 2012 alone, a rise of nearly 11 per cent. The number of new cases of mesothelioma assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit had also risen by 7.1 per cent from 1,985 in 2011 to 2,125 new cases in 2012 (IIDB).