HSE Case Control Study on Mesothelioma Risks in Britain (2009)

A study was published in 2009 on the risks of mesothelioma inherent in the UK.  The study was commissioned by the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) and prepared by the Institute of Cancer Research and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  Its intention was to consider the occupational, domestic and environmental risks of mesothelioma and it is the largest study of its kind to date.

The death rate from mesothelioma in the UK is the highest in the world.  The study obtained lifetime occupational and residential histories from 622 mesothelioma patients, of whom 512 were men and 110 were women, and 1420 population controls.

The study produced several conclusions including the following.  Firstly, that the risk of developing mesothelioma is determined in the main by the extent of asbestos exposure experienced before the age of 30.  The risk was said to range from a lifetime risk of 1 in 17 for those working in carpentry for 10 or more years before the age of 30, to 1 in 1,000 in those who appeared not to have been exposed to asbestos.

The results of the study provided an overall prediction that of the total anticipated deaths from mesothelioma in the UK between 1970 and 2050, approximately 15,000 will be carpenters.  The study found that the risks of lung cancer were similar.

The report considers the fact that the UK was the largest importer of brown asbestos, or amosite, and it is thought, following strong although indirect evidence, that this may explain the exceptionally high rate of mesothelioma in this country.  America imported far less amosite but used similar amounts of white asbestos, or chrysotile, and more blue asbestos, or chrocidolite.  Mortality rates from mesothelioma in the US are approximately 3 to 5 times less than the British rates.  This links back to the evidence in respect of carpenters as British carpenters frequently used asbestos insulation board containing brown asbestos.

The widespread use of power tools to cut such boarding created a heightened risk in the absence of any effective controls on dust levels until the 1980s.

The study also considered the rate of deaths from mesothelioma in women.   The report concluded that the increasing mortality rate in women and the greater rate as compared with the US suggested that a large percentage of cases of mesothelioma with no known cause were probably due to environmental asbestos exposure from industrial and construction activities.

There are approximately 2100 deaths from mesothelioma in the UK each year with about 5 times as many men being affected as women.

Substantial quantities of asbestos were used in the construction industry between 1960 and 1980.  Much of that asbestos is still in place and that begs the question of what the risks arising out of that are.  Clearly the properties in which it is still present are being regularly maintained or renovated.  There is therefore a significant potential ongoing risk of mesothelioma to tradesman working in this environment.  The extent of this risk is yet unknown given that the number of mesothelioma deaths in men born in the 1960s is too few to draw any conclusions from as yet.

The report can be located on the HSE website within the research section and provides some useful statistics and tables relating to mesothelioma and the associated risks.