RR696: Occupational, domestic and environmental mesothelioma risks in Britain

One in 17 British carpenters born in the 1940s will die of mesothelioma - a cancer of the lining of the lung caused by asbestos - according to new research* published in the British Journal of Cancer.

In the largest global study of its kind - funded by Cancer Research UK and the Health and Safety Executive - more than 600 patients with mesothelioma and 1 400 healthy people were interviewed to examine UK rates of the disease linked to different occupations.

The researchers have calculated that men born in the 1940s who worked as carpenters for more than 10 years before they reached 30 have a lifetime risk for mesothelioma of about one in 17. 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.

For every case of mesothelioma, asbestos also causes about one case of lung cancer so the overall risk of asbestos related cancer for this particular group of carpenters is about one in 10.

The risk was also increased in other industries and the study showed that two-thirds of all British men and one quarter of women had worked in jobs involving potential asbestos exposure at some time in their lives. There was also a small increased risk in those who had lived with someone who had been exposed to asbestos.

The risk of mesothelioma for the rest of the UK population who haven't experienced these occupational exposures is about one in 1 000. These apparently unexposed cases account for 60 per cent of all mesotheliomas in women and 15 per cent in men. This is higher than the overall rate in women in most other countries, suggesting that many of these unexplained cases were caused by unrecognised environmental asbestos exposures which occurred in certain situations because of the widespread use of asbestos during the 1960s and 1970s.

There are three main types of asbestos – white, blue and brown. White asbestos was the type most commonly used in the UK. Blue asbestos was not used in Britain after 1970, but the use of brown asbestos continued into the 1980s, and carpenters often cut and drilled brown asbestos insulation board with power tools. The researchers believe this was a major factor underlying Britain's mesothelioma epidemic.

There are just over 2 100 people diagnosed with mesothelioma in the UK each year with about five times as many cases in men as in women.

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Updated 2021-04-23