The British government has released some surprising and disturbing figures highlighting the size of the mesothelioma problem in the country.
In a new report that Britain’s Express’ calls “shocking”, the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says more than 1.8 million people are exposed to asbestos every year in the country and one dies of the disease every four hours. As the incidence of mesothelioma continues to rise, the HSE predicts that 5,000 people will die of it each year by 2015. That figure means mesothelioma numbers may be twice as high in the U.K. (and much higher per capita) as in the U.S., where the National Cancer Institute currently estimates 2,500 deaths a year.
Mesothelioma is a malignancy that tends to spread quickly across the membranous tissue that encases the lungs or abdominal organs. Given that mesothelioma is caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos fibers, the reasons for the U.K. numbers become clearer. According to the government figures, many British homes or public buildings constructed before 1999 contains asbestos. Any time asbestos is disturbed – such as during repair, destruction or renovation – toxic dust can be released into the air, putting everyone in the vicinity at risk for mesothelioma and other asbestos-linked illnesses.
The UK’s HSE came under fire earlier this year for its decision to shelve the award-winning ‘Hidden Killer’ advertising campaign, aimed at increasing asbestos awareness among construction workers and tradespeople. Launched in 2008, the program was discontinued in 2010 after the HSE lost 35% of its funding. UCATT, the country’s largest construction union, reports that an average of eight joiners, six electricians and four plumbers die of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma in the UK each week.
As in the U.S., veterans are also a high-risk group. Chris Knighton, a British woman whose Royal Navy veteran husband died of the mesothelioma 10 years ago, runs a research fund in his memory and has raised more than a million dollars to combat the disease. In an interview with the UK’s Daily Express newspaper, Knighton said that, in the days before the danger of asbestos was made known, Mick Knighton’s first Navy helmet and gauntlets were made of asbestos. He also spent years refitting ships that were full of asbestos, unaware of the danger. Knighton hopes that the mesothelioma research her foundation is helping to fund will give more hope to future patients.
Douglas, Hilary, “Hidden Danger from Asbestos Threatens $1.8M”, July 17, 2011, U.K. Express website.
“HSE denies asbestos-campaign cancellation claims”, February 2, 2011, Safety & Health Practitioner Magazine (SHP) online.