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Early Mesothelioma Deaths a “Proxy” for Childhood Asbestos Exposure in Italy

asbestos exposure

A new study out of Italy is a sobering reminder of the devastating effects of early asbestos exposure. 

Mesothelioma is rare in people under 50. But  the new study found about 35 Italians under 50 died of mesothelioma every year from 2003 to 2016.

The highest number of deaths were among people from Northern industrialized parts of the country. These are the people most likely to experience environmental asbestos exposure as children. 

The researchers say these early deaths indicate the toxicity of the environment in these regions – particularly to those who grew up there. 

Malignant mesothelioma is an extremely rare cancer of internal membranes. It was almost unheard of before industrialization. Many industries started using asbestos in the early 1900s. It was cheap, plentiful, and impervious to heat and corrosion. That made it a good insulator and additive to everything from roof tiles to brake pads. 

Today, asbestos exposure is the number one cause of mesothelioma around the world. Asbestos fibers stay in the body when a person inhales or swallows the dust. 

In places where asbestos was used heavily, it was almost impossible not to. The fibers cause irritation and inflammation that can lead to cancer. 

People who faced asbestos exposure at work have higher rates of mesothelioma. But, as the Italian study shows, even people who lived around these companies were at risk. This was especially true for children.

Children May Be Especially Vulnerable

Children tend to have strong immune systems. As a result, some illnesses pose a bigger threat to adults than children. But asbestos exposure is cumulative. The longer it goes on, the higher the risk. 

Even though many more adults get mesothelioma, a person exposed to asbestos in childhood has a higher lifetime risk. That person is much more likely to get mesothelioma than a person exposed in old age. 

The Italian study appears to bear this out. Researchers at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità in Rome conducted the study. They found 487 Italians under 50 died of mesothelioma between 2003 and 2016. Areas where asbestos exposure was higher had the highest death rates. 

“Exceeding SMRs were found in 10 municipalities where former asbestos-cement plants, shipyards, and a quarry contaminated by fluoro-edenite fibres were present,” states the report. Fluoro-edenite fibres are “asbestos-like fibres” that may have a similar effect. 

The research team says these early mesothelioma deaths are an indication of childhood asbestos exposure. The figures can even be a stand-in or “proxy” to calculate how many children might have been exposed. 

“Early mortality from malignant mesothelioma, a proxy of childhood environmental asbestos exposure, deserves particular concern,” they conclude.

American children were not immune to the threat. An asbestos mine contaminated the town of Libby, Montana for years. Hundreds of people who lived near the mine – including some who grew up there – have contracted mesothelioma.


Fazzo, L, et at, “Early mortality from malignant mesothelioma in Italy as a proxy of environmental exposure to asbestos in children”, October-December 2020, Annali dell’Istituto Superiore di Sanita, pp. 478-486, https://www.iss.it/documents/20126/0/ANN_20_04_10.pdf

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