Post written by Rosie Rosati, Health Advocate
Both the amount of asbestos in UK lungs and the UK mesothelioma rate below age 50 are declining rapidly, but could Brexit be putting this at risk? Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the lungs and most cases are caused by exposure to asbestos. Only 1 in 20 people diagnosed with mesothelioma are alive five years later.
Phasing Out Asbestos in the UK
Alongside the UK, well over 50 countries have restricted or banned the use of asbestos after learning of its carcinogenic properties. The USA has no such ban. While the European Union (EU) has demonstrated its commitment to environmental and consumer health, Brexit has evoked citizens to wonder if the EU’s high standards will be upheld after the UK makes its exit on March 29.
David Kaplan, executive director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, has emphasized that the asbestos industry has spent “nearly 100 million dollars U.S. in public and private monies since the mid-1980s to keep asbestos in commerce.” He went on to explain that trade centers, including those in Montreal, Mexico City, and New Delhi, are working together to promote the controlled use of chrysotile (white) asbestos, the most common form still used in consumer products today.
Although amphiboles (blue and brown asbestos) were banned in Britain 40 years ago and white asbestos has not been used for 30 years, loose safety regulations risk contributing to the rising number of patients suffering from an asbestos-related illness. With the UK being on the brink of Brexit, this issue has become more important now than ever before.
Lifetime Mesothelioma Risk
Most cases of mesothelioma, an uncommon yet critical form of cancer that is typically fatal, develop more than 35 years after first asbestos exposure, so almost all recent cases in Britain are due to exposure before 1980 when asbestos was still widely used. Britain’s mesothelioma rate is the highest worldwide and is still rising above age 70.
High-risk occupations are by far the biggest contributors to the risk to mesothelioma as a public health problem and workers involved in construction, firefighting, shipbuilding, carpentry, and the military are the most vulnerable to exposure. As a precaution, tradesmen are encouraged to notify their primary physician (GP) in order to monitor their lungs appropriately. This is the most effective way to detect an asbestos-related disease early on, as symptoms can lie dormant for well over 35 years.
People born since 1965 (who would have started work in the 1980s) have a lifetime risk of approximately 1 in 10,000, 10-fold less than in older people and almost 1000-fold less than in carpenters born in the 1940s.
With projected population growth and ageing over the next 40 years, the low rates in people born since 1965 imply that there will be 75-100 mesotheliomas caused by asbestos each year. There may be a similar number unrelated to asbestos. In 2015, however there were 2697 cases and 2496 deaths due to mesothelioma in the UK. Research predicts that the UK will continue to witness approximately 2,500 mesothelioma deaths per year over the next decade before beginning to decline.
The risk is mostly restricted to a subgroup of plumbers, electricians, decorators and asbestos removal workers who do not take adequate precautions and to a minority of the general population with unusually high environmental exposure to asbestos.
More studies are needed to study the current burden of this disease in young people. Further data would help establish whether asbestos in buildings, particularly schools, is a persisting or decreasing hazard.
The widespread use of asbestos in construction equipment has also led officials to warn not only workers, but residents to be wary when renovating any home built before 2000. While asbestos is safe in good condition, any sort of wear and tear can allow these fibers to release into the air and be inhaled by those within the vicinity. Officials have urged residents to leave any suspicious materials alone and close off any room the toxin may exist in until a professional can evaluate the situation further.
Brexit’s Impact on Public Health
Brexit has become a concern for the UK after officials warned of the potential gaps in public policy and consumer health. Activists were quick to point out inherent flaws in the deal, such as allowing genetically modified foods to flood the shelves, however, they did not expect the issue of asbestos to resurface on their soil.
Prime Minister Theresa May is working relentlessly to secure a controversial trade-deal proposed by U.S. President, Donald Trump. This post-Brexit agreement has been greatly criticized for lowering health and safety standards, one argument being America’s continued use and tolerance for up to 1% of asbestos permitted in consumer products. Furthermore, President Trump has supported its use and voiced his opinion stating: “the movement against asbestos was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal.”
The UK has worked hard to fight asbestos-caused mesothelioma, however, withdrawing from EU and the foundation of Brexit may enable asbestos to slowly infiltrate the UK all over again.
These facts are the driving force behind activists speaking out against asbestos and the post-Brexit trade deal, as the UK is still suffering from and uncovering leftover asbestos today. With an immense amount of pressure surrounding the UK withdrawing from the EU, the public may feel out of control of their own health and safety. Fortunately, citizens are now demanding an environmental watchdog in order to secure the same safety standards they’ve honored for years. This proposal was included in the draft environment bill, which will legally require the government to uphold a reliable and long-term environment plan following Brexit.
UPDATE: New study calls for complete ban of asbestos use in developing countries. According to the authors developing nations such as Brazil, Russia and India face an unprecedented public health crisis because they continue to produce and use asbestos.
The views expressed are those of the author. Posting of the blog does not signify that the Cancer Prevention Group endorse those views or opinions.