Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

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.

Worrying trend

Professor Peto said: "The figures are horrifying. The cancer was extremely rare and has now become common and will become more common."

[ image: Workers removing asbestos need protective clothing]
Workers removing asbestos need protective clothing
Professor Peto and colleagues expect the epidemic to peak around 2020 and then decline. Mesothelioma deaths will total about 250,000 by 2034.

"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.

Past experience

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.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Health Contents

Background Briefings
Medical notes

Relevant Stories

02 Dec 98 | Medical notes
Lung cancer

10 Nov 98 | Health
Asbestos 'will kill 500,000' by 2020

31 Aug 98 | Medical notes
Asbestos disease factfile

Internet Links

Institute of Cancer Research

British Asbestos Newsletter

Types of lung cancer

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

Disability in depth

Spotlight: Bristol inquiry

Antibiotics: A fading wonder

Mental health: An overview

Alternative medicine: A growth industry

The meningitis files

Long-term care: A special report

Aids up close

From cradle to grave

NHS reforms: A guide

NHS Performance 1999

From Special Report
NHS in crisis: Special report

British Medical Association conference '99

Royal College of Nursing conference '99