New research in Spain suggests that mesothelioma deaths will continue in the country until the “last surviving member” of the group of people exposed to occupational asbestos succumbs to the disease.
Like many countries, Spain used asbestos heavily in the first half of the 20th century, especially in construction, where the mineral was prized for its durability, low cost, and resistance to fire and corrosion. Asbestos was banned in Spain in 2002.
Observing that more than 2.5 million metric tons of asbestos were imported into Spain from 1906 to 2002, researchers say deaths from mesothelioma have risen steadily. Between 1976 and 1980, a total of 491 Spanish people died of mesothelioma. By the 5-year period from 2006 to 2010, that number had more than doubled to 1,249. Unfortunately, the researchers say there is every indication that this mesothelioma death trend will continue for many years.
“Predictions for the 5-year period 2016-2020 indicated a total of 1,319 pleural cancer deaths (264 deaths/year),” the researchers wrote in BMC Cancer. But the study did contain a little good news. The waning use of asbestos in building products after about 1960 appeared to trigger a leveling off in male mortality from mesothelioma in the 5-year period from 2001 to 2005. The delay in effect is related to mesothelioma’s latency period, which can last for decades.
As with previous studies, the Spanish study found lower rates of mesothelioma among women, indicating that occupational exposure was “possibly the single factor” with the greatest influence on mesothelioma incidence. More female mesothelioma patients are exposed to asbestos second-hand through a spouse’s work clothes or by living around asbestos dust.
But the most discouraging news is that, according to the data, mesothelioma is likely to persist in Spain until at least 2040, the year by which the last person occupationally-exposed to asbestos will have died.
In the U.S., where asbestos has not been banned, an estimated 2,500 people still die of mesothelioma annually. This number has declined slightly over the last decade as EPA and OSHA regulations regarding the handling and disposal of asbestos have had an impact on exposure. However, the U.S. is still one of the few industrialized countries in the world where a comprehensive asbestos ban is not in place.
Lopez-Abente, G, et al, “Pleural cancer mortality in Spain: time-trends and updating of predictions up to 2020”, November 6, 2013, BMC Cancer, Epub ahead of print.