Lives lost to mesothelioma, the fatal, incurable cancer of the lung linings, has risen slightly once again in the UK, according to the latest figures released in June 2017 by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

The HSE annual statistics on fatal injuries at work, show that the number of deaths resulting from asbestos-related mesothelioma had inched up from 2,519 in 2014 to 2,542, one year later.

It was in 2015 that the British Medical Journal (BMJ) warned that the UK was facing a decade or more of rising deaths from mesothelioma and other debilitating asbestosis diseases. The BMJ reported that the number of male mesothelioma cases has steadily increased by more than 11 fold between the 1970s and 2011, and by 8 times over for female victims during the same period. Between 2000 and 2011, mortality rates rose by 20 per cent and 40 per cent in men and women, respectively.

The new HSE figures show that 2,135 men had died from mesothelioma compared to 407 women, an increase driven mainly by deaths among those aged 75 and above. Previous figures had shown that average female mesothlioma mortality of those aged under 65 had seen a threefold increase since 1970. Current forecasts suggest that the ongoing figure of 2,500 deaths per year – up by more than 10 per cent since 2011 – will continue for the rest of this current decade at least.

Consistent fatality level more than three decades after first asbestos ban

Mesothelioma accounts for just one per cent of all cancers diagnosed, yet repeatedly, the figures point to asbestos as the biggest cause of occupational deaths in UK history. There are several reasons why there has been a consistent fatality level more than three decades since the UK introduced the first partial asbestos ban, and a total ban nearly 20 years ago.

The majority of victims of asbestos exposure were males aged 20 to 49 years, working during the period between the 1940s and the 1980s in key asbestos using industries, such as shipbuilding, construction and industrial engineering. 85 per cent of all mesothelioma deaths have occurred amongst men mostly aged 60 years and above. Over time, and since the decline and total ban on using asbestos in the mid 1980s, there has been a drop in the number of males diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases. Consequently, an increase in cases of female victims of mesothelioma has become clearly evident.

HSE suggest that around 1,200 women are believed to have been victims of environmental and ‘secondary’ exposures to asbestos since 2008. A study ten years earlier found that more than half of females diagnosed with mesothelioma had suffered exposure due to “secondary exposure”, i.e. household contact with husbands or sons who worked with asbestos and brought their contaminated workclothes home to be cleaned.

Many of the women who are diagnosed with an asbestos-related condition are also known to have worked in buildings where asbestos had been previously installed as insulation and fireproofing material, particularly schools, nurseries, hospitals, government and council buildings, offices, factories and department stores.

Gradual shift in the age group of those who lose their life

One of the biggest reasons for the continuing number of mesothelioma victims is the well-known long length of time that the disease may take to develop. There can be between 15 to 50 years before the potential for cells to become cancerous may be triggered. In many cases the average “latency” period is round 30 – 40 years before asbestosis symptoms first appear.

It means that those men or women who were first exposed to asbestos – before the first ban – in their early working life during the 1970s and 80s may only be diagnosed with the fatal disease in the next 10 – 20 years. Research indicates that there has been a gradual shift in the age group of those who lose their life to the fatal cancer. Between 1968 and 1972, nearly all of the deaths (90 per cent) occurred to patients below the age of 74. However, between 2009 and 2013, the proportion of those who died who were above that age had risen to 50 per cent.

While HSE expects the annual number of mesothelioma deaths to start falling from around 2020, other studies are less optimistic. According to the ‘Projection of Mesothelioma Mortality in Great Britain’ (Tan and Warren, 2009), the number of deaths could actually reach more than 2,800 every year by 2025.