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Mesothelioma Not the Only Cancer Threat for Shipbreakers

721196_ship buildingMesothelioma is not the only cancer whose incidence is elevated in workers exposed to asbestos. A new Taiwanese study of shipbreakers finds that these workers are more susceptible to a wide range of cancers and should be regularly monitored for signs of disease.

Shipbreaking is the process of dismantling old ships for salvage or scrap. Before the link between asbestos and mesothelioma was establish, shipbreaking workers around the world were routinely exposed to asbestos in a variety of ship parts. Asbestos was prized for its resistance to heat, fire and corrosion and was commonly used by shipbuilders to insulate boilers and pipes and fireproof areas from the mess halls to the sleeping quarters.

Although several studies have linked shipbreaking with mesothelioma, researchers at Taiwan’s National Health Research Institutes and three Taiwanese universities found that these workers were also susceptible of many other types of cancer over the long term.

The study focused on 4,427 Taiwanese shipbreaking workers and 22,135 healthy control subjects from 1985 to 2008.  Over the length of the 23-years study, there were 436 cancer cases among the shipbreaking workers. Some of these were mesothelioma, but many were other types of cancer. The researchers found a “statistically significant increase in the risk of overall cancer” in shipbreaking workers exposed to asbestos.

“Mesothelioma cases were found in the high asbestos exposure group,” reports lead author Wei-Te Wu of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “Moreover, overall cancer, esophagus cancer, and trachea, bronchus, and lung cancer were seen in a dose-dependent relationship with asbestos exposure.”

Dr. Wu and his colleagues recommend “persistent monitoring” for former shipbreakers in order to detect early signs of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related cancer. Their article was published in the online open-access medical journal PLoS One.

Anyone with a history of asbestos exposure faces a higher lifetime risk of mesothelioma and several other cancers and could benefit from regular monitoring.

Source: Wu, WT et al, “Cancer Attributable to Asbestos Exposure in Shipbreaking Workers: A Matched-Cohort Study”, July 20, 2015, PLoS One.

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