Asbestos Workers: Longer Employment Equals Higher Mesothelioma Risk

249055_older workerThe longer a person’s occupational exposure to asbestos, the greater the lifetime risk of developing malignant mesothelioma or lung cancer.

That is the finding of a new study out of Italy, where early retirement is allowed among workers who know they have been exposed to asbestos.

The rates of mesothelioma and lung cancer were found to be higher the longer people worked in their asbestos jobs. Only a fraction of these eligible workers have taken the early retirement option.

Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure

Before asbestos was linked to the development of malignant pleural mesothelioma, it was used extensively in Europe, Australia, the UK and the US as a strong and heat-resistant additive to items ranging from shingles and insulation to blankets and Christmas decor.

But after it became clear that asbestos could give rise to mesothelioma tumors, countries began to put laws in place to restrict or ban the use of the mineral.

In 1992, Italy’s government banned asbestos. In anticipation that some of these workers would eventually develop mesothelioma, the law included a provision giving workers the right to request early retirement if they were among those who had suffered occupational exposure to asbestos.

To Stay or Not to Stay at Work

A new study evaluating the fate of Italian asbestos workers still alive after the 1992 law was enacted finds that “the risk of malignant pleural mesothelioma and lung cancer increases at any additional duration of work, up to very high values for long term durations of work for MPM and up to a three-fold increase for LC.”

In other words, those who suffered the longest exposures to asbestos had the highest lifetime risk of malignant mesothelioma or lung cancer. This applied, regardless of whether they elected to leave their job.

Mesothelioma Latency and Survival

After a person is exposed to asbestos, the body becomes like a ticking time bomb. Mesothelioma can take decades to develop and most people don’t notice any mesothelioma symptoms until the disease is in an advanced stage.

Although only a small number of exposed people go on to develop mesothelioma, there is no way to know which ones they will be. The only certainty seems to be that longer exposure increases the risk.

The authors of the Italian study say the take-away message is that people who have worked in asbestos jobs – especially if they have worked in them for some time – should have long-term health monitoring for early signs of mesothelioma or lung cancer.


Merler, E, et al “Increased risk of mesothelioma and lung cancer among workers exposed to asbestos who could require an anticipated retirement”, Epidemiology and Prevention, Jan/Feb 2016, pp. 26 – 34.

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