Last reviewed 16 August 2019

A leading cancer journal has analysed the reasons for the recent surge in deaths in the UK due to mesothelioma, warning that the asbestos “dust cloud lingers” to this day.

The editorial in The Lancet Oncology explains that exposure to asbestos fibres is to blame for most (over 80%) cases of the notoriously incurable cancer, malignant mesothelioma.

The UK death toll from asbestos-related mesothelioma is now reaching its peak. In 2017, there were 2523 deaths from mesothelioma in the UK — almost double the 1317 deaths recorded in 1995.

The editorial succinctly explains the reasons behind this surge: “In the 20th century, asbestos was used widely … However, by the 1970s, it was linked to alarmingly high mesothelioma rates, especially in shipyard, factory, and construction workers. Consequently, the most dangerous forms of asbestos (blue and brown) were banned in the UK in 1985, and white asbestos was eventually barred in 1999.”

There is a long lag-time between asbestos exposure and the actual development of symptoms of mesothelioma — anything from 20 to 50 years — meaning that the current UK peaks in mesothelioma deaths are probably a result of industrial exposure in the 20th century.

However, fortunately numbers of diagnoses and deaths in the UK have begun to plateau in the past five years, and are predicted to decline in the coming years due to the effects of the legislation implemented several decades ago.

In the USA however, an initial ban on asbestos in 1989 was overturned in 1991 and “regulated” use of asbestos is allowed. Around 3000 new mesothelioma cases and 2500 related deaths are recorded annually in the USA.

The USA is not the only country that still uses asbestos. Although it is banned in 55 countries worldwide, many continue to mine and use it, with Russia and China among the top producers.

Mesothelioma in these countries is therefore expected to rise unless governments act on asbestos warns the editorial.