Even though Australia has one of the world’s highest per capita rates of malignant pleural mesothelioma, data on where and when people were likely to have been exposed to asbestos is sketchy. As researchers from the University of Western Australia in Perth note in an article in The Annals of Occupational Hygiene, “In Australia…estimates of disease risk and attribution of disease causation are usually calculated from data that are not specific for local conditions.”
One of the problems with not trying to quantify risk in different locations and in different industries is that it makes it more likely that patients whose mesothelioma symptoms don’t fit the model will go undiagnosed until it is too late to help them. A method for predicting the exposure levels of different types of workers during different time periods could make it easier to recognize mesothelioma and improve outcomes.
To come up with more specific mesothelioma prediction data, scientists gathered all the available information on industry practices in Australia. They worked directly with three local industrial hygienists who were familiar with local and international work practices. The hygienists used the location-specific industry data to estimate asbestos exposure for different combinations of occupations and industries and at different time periods.
The panel came up with asbestos exposure estimates for 537 combinations of 224 occupations and 60 industries during four periods of time – 1943 to 1966, 1967 to 1986, 1987 to 2003, and 2003 to 2014. Not surprisingly, people who worked in the manufacturing, shipping, and insulation industries were estimated to have had the highest level of asbestos exposure. Equally disconcerting was the fact that, prior to 1986, 46 different occupation/industry combinations were estimated to have exposed their workers to asbestos levels exceeding Australia’s current exposure standards.
The study’s authors say the resulting job exposure matrix, dubbed the AsbJEM, “will contribute to improved understanding and prediction of asbestos-related diseases and attribution of disease causation.”
The elevated rates of mesothelioma in Australia are a direct result of the country’s long history with asbestos, including some of the world’s most productive asbestos mines. Those mines are now closed and Australia has instituted a complete ban on the import and use of asbestos.
Van Oyen, Svein et al, “Development of a Job-Exposure Matrix (AsbJEM) to Estimate Occupational Exposure to Asbestos in Australia”, April 3, 2015, Annals of Occupational Hygiene, Epub ahead of print