According to the Guardian, the death toll from asbestos-related diseases in the United Kingdom has reached crisis levels. After decisions to allow the use of asbestos between the 1950s and 1970s, the U.K. is experiencing record numbers of deaths from the diseases it causes. Along with Australia, the U.K. has the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world. Mesothelioma is a rare and fatal cancer that is exclusively caused by asbestos exposure.
As in the U.S., the U.K. allowed the wide use of asbestos in insulation and fire retardants. The U.K. banned blue and brown asbestos in 1985, but it continued to allow the use of white asbestos until 1999. As in the U.S., mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are especially prevalent in the shipbuilding and construction industries, and in the asbestos industry itself.
The U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) released figures recently on how many Britons are dying from asbestos exposure. The agency counted 2,523 mesothelioma deaths in 2017, similar to the last five years. The overall rate of mesothelioma in the U.K. almost doubled between 1995 and 2017. There were 1,317 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in 2017.
Rates of asbestos-related lung cancer are estimated to be approximately the same, although it is harder to prove a particular cause in cases of lung cancer. The HSE expects these rates to continue through the next decade and then taper off.
Exposure from decades ago resulting in asbestos diseases
Although asbestos is banned in the U.K., that doesn’t mean there will be no more victims of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases. In part, that’s because these diseases often occur decades after exposure to asbestos.
The Guardian interviewed one man who developed mesothelioma several decades after working in a foundry. He was diagnosed, three years ago. He wasn’t expected to live this long. The typical survival rate for individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma is 12-18 months.
Another woman was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2009. Fifty years earlier, she had been exposed to asbestos carried home on clothing by her husband, who was an apprentice at a dockyard. She didn’t know washing his clothes would sentence her to a fatal disease.
Another reason people continue to be diagnosed is that, before it was banned, asbestos was installed almost universally in buildings. Whenever those buildings are refurbished or demolished, the asbestos can become airborne and lodge itself in the lungs of a new generation of victims. That is why special remediation efforts are required when working on buildings with asbestos components.
With asbestos-related diseases, there are always critics who assert that the crisis is over and no more victims should receive compensation. As these latest numbers from the U.K. demonstrate, the crisis continues.