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The World’s Workers Still Dying From Malignant Mesothelioma

An international study of malignant mesothelioma suggests that deaths from the asbestos cancer have increased in recent years, in spite of advances in diagnostic and treatment tools.

The study included data and estimates on deaths from malignant mesothelioma in 230 countries between 1994 and 2014.

Based on information obtained from the World Health Organization, a team of scientists in Japan, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, the US, and the UK grouped the countries into three categories – those with reliable numbers on malignant mesothelioma deaths, those with less reliable mesothelioma data, and those that do not track mesothelioma deaths.

Mesothelioma Deaths Are Up

The researchers found that, in the 59 countries that keep good data on mesothelioma deaths (including the US), more than 15,000 people died of malignant mesothelioma between 2011 and 2014.

That is the equivalent of just under 10 mesothelioma deaths per million people per year. Based on those rates and the level of asbestos use in the remaining countries, the team extrapolated the number of global deaths from mesothelioma to be 38,400 per year.

“The global numbers and rates of mesothelioma deaths have increased over time,” concludes the study’s primary author, Chimed-Ochir Odgerel with the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu, Japan. “Our rates are within the range of previously reported values but higher than the most recently reported values.”

Asbestos Remains a Worldwide Health Threat

Asbestos, a naturally-occurring mineral that was once prized for its tensile strength and resistance to heat and corrosion, is the primary cause of both pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma.

Although the link between asbestos exposure and malignant mesothelioma began to come to light as early as the 1950s, manycompanies around the world continued to use asbestos well into the 1980s.

As a result, each year thousands of workers, including an estimated 2,500 in the US, contract malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer of internal membranes for which there is still no cure.

Fifty-five countries have now banned asbestos completely. Others, like the US, subject its use and handling to heavy regulation. Unfortunately, asbestos is still unregulated in most third-world countries where mesothelioma rates continue to rise steadily.

Construction Trades Now at Highest Risk in US

In the past, those who mined and processed asbestos in places like Libby, Montana, and Naval seamen who lived and worked on asbestos-laden ships were at highest risk of eventually developing mesothelioma.

Today, as the asbestos used in older buildings deteriorates, workers in construction trades including electricians, plumbers and those who do renovation or demolition work face a higher risk of asbestos exposure and eventual malignant mesothelioma.

There is no way to prevent mesothelioma in asbestos-exposed workers, but some recent studies have suggested that periodic screening with a tool such as CT may improve the odds of early detection and longer mesothelioma survival.


Odgerel, CQ, et al, “Estimation of the global burden of mesothelioma deaths from incomplete national mortality data”, September 2, 2017, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Epub ahead of print

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