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Mesothelioma: the global killer

By Helen Tomlin, an expert asbestos-related disease lawyer at Irwin Mitchell

Mesothelioma is a cancer related almost exclusively to asbestos exposure. It can be caused by even very low levels of asbestos exposure, and is always fatal. 

The use of asbestos became common during the latter part of the 19th century's Industrial Revolution, when the power of steam started to be harnessed to drive the machines of the factories and mills worldwide. The use of asbestos grew exponentially over the following decades.

Deaths linked to asbestos

As the use of asbestos increased, so did the deaths attributed to the deadly dust. The first death in the UK officially related to the use of asbestos, that of Nellie Kershaw, was noted in 1924, and in 2017 there were a total of 29,909 recorded deaths worldwide.

Global mining continues

The deadly mineral is still being mined in several countries in the world, including  Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Brazil and Zimbabwe and the global campaign to ban the use of asbestos continues to this day. 

In 2020, Russia produced 790,000 metric tonnes of asbestos; the biggest users of asbestos today are in Asia, with China, India and Indonesia the largest consumers. International companies take advantage of the lack of rigorous health and safety  enforcement and dust controls which would be common in UK workplaces to continue to mine, manufacture and use asbestos and asbestos containing products. 

This results in many thousands of workers still being exposed to asbestos in uncontrolled environments, condemning a further generation to rising incidences of mesothelioma deaths. 

Global companies involved in the mining and importation of asbestos such as Cape Plc, Johnson & Johnson and Turner & Newalls, also known as Federal Mogul, have made profits of millions of pounds over the decades. However, when their employees started to seek legal redress, the companies used their global status to hide from their responsibilities, seeking bankruptcy protection in overseas legal systems to avoid their responsibilities to their UK-based employees or users of their products. 

The global insurance market has also taken a hit; in the UK nearly 34,000 Names at Lloyd’s of London were unable to meet their global liabilities to pay out on asbestos claims the late 1980s and several insurance companies have filed for bankruptcy due to the impact of asbestos claims on their reserves.

Legal remedies available for mesothelioma sufferers

The legal remedies available for sufferers of mesothelioma vary from country to country. In the UK, for example, people diagnosed with mesothelioma have a legal remedy against their employers, or the company that exposed them to asbestos and can access benefits and tariff schemes. Australia has a similar system. US claims are dealt with through asbestos trust funds, settlements or jury verdicts.

Worldwide collaboration to find better treatments 

One truly global aspect of the fight against mesothelioma is the worldwide collaboration between medical physicians to find better treatments, or even a cure, for the disease. Medical experts from the UK, US, Europe and Australia have worked together successfully  to identify new and improved methods to reduce the burden of ill health caused by mesothelioma and to extend patient life expectancy.

Global effort needed to consign mesothelioma to the history books

Asbestos cannot be treated as an historical problem. Mesothelioma rates across the world are continuing to increase, and as more people are exposed to the deadly asbestos dust each year, the rates of mesothelioma will increase, particularly amongst those communities who are ill-equipped to provide the specialist care and access to drug therapies that are needed to combat the disease. Asbestos is a worldwide problem, and a worldwide effort is needed to finally ban this so-called ‘magic mineral’ and consign mesothelioma to the history books, where it belongs.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting people and families affected by mesothelioma and other diseases at our dedicated asbestos-related disease section.