After decades of higher-than-normal rates of mesothelioma near dockyards, cases of mesothelioma linked to shipbuilding appear to be falling in the UK.
The UK has one of the highest per capita rates of malignant mesothelioma in the world. A big part of that comes from the shipbuilding industry where asbestos was used extensively.
Now, a new report suggests the scourge of mesothelioma linked to shipbuilding is finally beginning to taper off, even though deaths from mesothelioma have not.
Why is Mesothelioma Linked to Shipbuilding?
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral that is strong and impervious to heat and corrosion. That made it a good insulator and a choice building material for many decades. Unfortunately, asbestos is also highly toxic.
Before scientists made the connection between asbestos and malignant mesothelioma, asbestos could be found throughout many ships, from the engine room to the kitchen.
People who lived near shipyards or worked on ships were more likely to inhale asbestos dust. Once asbestos fibers enter the body, it is very hard for the body to expel them.
Over time, irritation and inflammation triggered by the fibers can lead to mesothelioma. This is why people in or around dockyards have traditionally faced a higher risk of mesothelioma linked to shipbuilding.
Assessing Risk of Death Near Dockyards
Shipbuilding is no longer the major industry that it once was in the UK and the country banned asbestos in 1999. But mesothelioma cases still occur. Researchers wanted to know the remaining level of mesothelioma linked to shipbuilding.
The new research comes from the National Heart & Lung Institute at Imperial College London. Researchers first calculated the age-adjusted mesothelioma mortality rates for the whole country. They compared these rates to mesothelioma mortality rates around dockyards (shipyards) between 2002 and 2015.
“For most districts, age-adjusted mesothelioma mortality rates increased through 2002-2015 but the relative contribution from districts with a dockyard fell,” writes lead author Dr. Carl Reynolds.
While cases of mesothelioma liked to shipbuilding still exist, the association is not as strong as it used to be. “Mesothelioma deaths are becoming more dispersed,” says Dr. Reynolds.
Risk from Shipbuilding Documented by Other Studies
UK workers are not the only ones at risk for mesothelioma linked to shipbuilding.
In the US, a 2017 analysis of former Baltimore shipyard workers confirmed they face a higher risk for early death. The risk of death from all causes, including mesothelioma and lung cancer, was higher the longer they worked in the shipyard.
Other studies have also confirmed mesothelioma linked to shipbuilding. A 2016 Italian study found that 192 shipyard workers diagnosed with mesothelioma had an average occupational exposure duration of 24 years.
Even with modern regulations in place to protect workers from mesothelioma, shipyards remain dangerous. Workers who dismantle decommissioned ships (called shipbreaking) may raise their risk for mesothelioma.
Reynolds, CJ, et al “Mesothelioma mortality in Great Britain: how much longer will dockyards dominate?”, October 29, 2019, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Epub ahead of print, https://oem.bmj.com/content/early/2019/10/29/oemed-2019-105878
Rusiecki, J, et al, “Mortality among Coast Guard Shipyard workers: a retrospective cohort study of specific exposures”, February 2017, Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, Epub ahead of print.