Monday, January 18, 1999 Published at 20:22 GMT
Asbestos will 'kill 250,000'
Builders are particularly at risk of exposure to asbestos
Doctors estimate that up to a quarter of a million men in Western Europe will die from an asbestos-related cancer in the next 35 years.
Professor Julian Peto of the Institute of Cancer Research and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine predicted a European epidemic in mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung caused by exposure to asbestos.
Deaths from the disease are expected to rise from just over 5,000 in 1998 to about 9,000 by 2018. There is no effective treatment for the illness and few people live more than three years after getting it.
Building, engineering and shipyard workers are at the highest risk and nearly all victims are male.
In November another study estimated more than half-a-million people could die of asbestosis, another asbestos-related disease, over the next 20 years.
Professor Peto said: "The figures are horrifying. The cancer was extremely rare and has now become common and will become more common."
"The highest risk will be among men born around 1945 and 1950. About one in 150 of all men aged around 50 in Western Europe will eventually die of mesothelioma.
"The risk is of course much higher among men who worked with asbestos."
Asbestos is a fibrous, heat resistant insulating material. Professor Peto described as a particularly dangerous material.
"It far exceeds all other known industrial carcinogens," he said.
In a study published in the British Journal of Cancer the researchers described how they predicted future death rates from the illness based on past trends in Britain, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland.
The high number of cases of mesothelioma in men born around 1945-1950 reflects the large amounts of asbestos used in the 1960s and 1970s when they were beginning their working lives.
"We are only beginning to see the effects of this as the disease usually takes between 20 to 60 years to develop," Professor Peto said.
He said the danger to men born since 1955 is not yet known. Many buildings still contain asbestos.
The danger in existing buildings is minimal, but if asbestos is disturbed and fibres are released during renovation work it could pose a danger to carpenters, plumbers, builders and electricians who may be exposed to it.
"There is a real concern that building workers are still at an extreme risk," said Professor Peto.
He added that many developing countries, where asbestos is still used in uncontrollable quantities, may experience similar death rates from mesothelioma in the future.