New figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) indicate that deaths from mesothelioma, which is contracted through past work-related exposure to asbestos, continue to run into the thousands, killing 2523 former workers in 2017.

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that takes many years to develop following the inhalation of asbestos fibres, but is usually rapidly fatal following the onset of symptoms.

It is one of the few work-related diseases where deaths can be counted directly and annual deaths in Britain have increased steeply over the last 50 years, a consequence of mainly occupational asbestos exposures that occurred because of the widespread industrial use of asbestos during 1950–1980.

The latest information shows:

  • there were 2523 mesothelioma deaths in Great Britain in 2017, a broadly similar number to the previous five years

  • the latest projections suggest that there will continue to be around 2500 deaths per year for the rest of this current decade before annual numbers begin to decline

  • more than half of annual deaths now occur in those aged over 75 years; annual deaths in this age group continue to increase while deaths below age 70 are now decreasing

  • there were 2084 male deaths in 2017, a slight reduction compared with recent years, and 439 female deaths, a slight increase

  • there were 2025 new cases of mesothelioma assessed for industrial injuries disablement benefit (IIDB) in 2017, of which 235 were female; this compares with 2170 new cases in 2016, of which 240 were female

  • men who worked in the building industry when asbestos was used extensively are now among those most at risk of mesothelioma.

Research quoted by the HSE shows that one in 17 British carpenters, who were born in the 1940s and worked in their trade for more than 10 years before they were 30, will die of mesothelioma. For plumbers, electricians and decorators born in the same decade who worked in their trade for more than 10 years before they were 30, the risk is one in 50 and for other construction workers, one in 125.

Last reviewed 9 July 2019