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Monday, 24 September, 2001, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
'One in seven' damaged by asbestos
asbestos leaflets
Asbestos dust remains a major health hazard
As many as one in seven people in western society may have been damaged by exposure to asbestos, say researchers.

Tests on a random sample of autopsy corpses found the tell-tale signs of asbestos in 13% of them.

Approximately the same proportion had a thickening of a lung membrane which suggests damage.

This is a worryingly high figure, and experts say that the number of fatal cancers in industrialised countries caused by exposure to the fireproofing material will continue to rise until 2020.

This rise is likely to be outpaced by deaths in the developing world, where asbestos is still in widespread use.

Huge production

Global asbestos production exceeded 2m tons last year, with the biggest producers being Russia, China and Canada.

Asbestos causes disease when the fibres that make it up are carried in dust into the lungs of the patient.

There will be a steady rise in the frequency of asbestos-linked cancers

Marc Letourneux, Caen, France
Over time, this can cause inflammation, which, decades later, can lead to lung cancer, or a tumour called mesothelioma.

These are almost always fatal - the number of mesothelioma deaths has spiralled upwards in recent decades as disease seeded years earlier finally manifests itself.

Marc Letourneux, of the University Medical Center Cote de Nacre in Caen, France, told a symposium on asbestos-related disease: "There will be a steady rise in the frequency of asbestos-linked cancers until at least 2010 and 2020, almost twice the rate of 1996/7."

At the Erasmus Hospital in Brussels, 160 autopsies performed between 1998 and 2000 were reexamined, and "pleural plaques" - a thickening of a lung membrane suggestive of damage - were found in 14% of them, and 20% of the men.

Concentrations of more than 1,000 asbestos bodies per gramme of dry lung tissue were found in 13%.

Experts were clear that the time lag between exposure and disease meant that thousands of cases would continue to emerge each year.

Antii Tossavainen, from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, told the meeting: "We know that occupational asbestos exposure in Western Europe, North America, Japan and Australia was at its peak in the 1970s.

"Now, recent estimates indicate that 30,000 new asbestos-related cancers continue to be diagnosed there every year.

"They include some 10,000 mesotheliomas, and approximately 20,000 cases of lung cancer."

See also:

27 Apr 01 | Health
Asbestos death toll rises
21 Mar 00 | A-B
Asbestos disease
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