Researchers in Italy say there were 4,400 asbestos deaths in the country between 2010 and 2016 – more than two decades after the country banned the substance.
Italy was one of the main European producers of asbestos until the 1992 ban. The new report shows the destructive legacy asbestos can have on a country.
Most of the asbestos deaths were from lung cancer or malignant mesothelioma. Some people also died of asbestosis or ovarian cancer. The research team says the numbers “suggest the need for appropriate interventions” to protect people from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Mesothelioma is Not the Only Fatal Asbestos-Related Disease
Asbestos is the primary cause of pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is even sometimes referred to as “asbestos cancer”. When a person inhales or swallows asbestos dust, the fibers stay in the body indefinitely. Over time, they can cause cellular changes that result in mesothelioma.
But the new report highlights the fact that not all asbestos deaths are from mesothelioma. In fact, asbestos can cause a variety of cancers and other deadly conditions. This toxic mineral has been linked to cancers of the lung, ovaries, and larynx. It can also cause serious lung inflammation called asbestosis and development of pleural plaques.
The goal of the new Italian study was to determine how many deaths could be attributed to asbestos in Italy over a five-year period. It is the first time anyone has attempted to calculate the burden of asbestos-related diseases in Italy.
Calculating Italy’s Asbestos Deaths
The team computed “temporal trends” for asbestos deaths based on data from the National Institute of Statistics database. They used population-based case-control studies to estimate deaths from mesothelioma and other asbestos-linked conditions. The figures are sobering.
“In the 2010-2016 period, 4400 deaths/year attributable to asbestos were estimated: 1515 from mesothelioma, 58 from asbestosis, 2830 from lung and 16 from ovarian cancers,” writes lead study author Lucia Fazzo.
Then the team concentrated on asbestos deaths in groups of people who worked around a lot of asbestos. In these occupational cohorts, they estimated 271 people died of malignant mesothelioma, 302 from lung cancer, and 16 from ovarian cancer.
Paying for a Dusty History
Italy was not only Europe’s top asbestos producer but also one of the top consumers of the 20th century. A 2017 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health illustrates how invested Italy once was in asbestos production.
“Asbestos exposure affected the population in a wide range of working environments, namely mining and marketing of asbestos, asbestos cement production, shipyards and textile industries,” write the environmental health researchers.
That all ended in 1992. But the new report proves that it takes a long time for an asbestos ban to have a measurable impact on mesothelioma and other asbestos deaths.
“These results suggest the need for appropriate interventions in terms of prevention, healthcare, and social security at the local level and could contribute to the global estimate of asbestos-related deaths,” Dr. Fazzo concludes.
About 2,500 people die of malignant mesothelioma in the US each year. Most of those deaths occur in people with a work history of asbestos exposure. Congress has considered an asbestos ban several times but has never passed it.
Fazzo, L, et al, “Burden of Mortality from Asbestos-Related Diseases in Italy”, September 23, 2021, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/18/19/10012