HSE Report Reveals Ongoing Legacy of A Disease That Continues To Claim Thousands Of Lives
The government’s annual report into cancer deaths linked to exposure to asbestos has revealed the areas in the UK with the biggest concentration of cases.
Published on 7 July, the updated report on Mesothelioma Mortality in Great Britain: 1968-2019 by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows that 1,945 men and 424 women died from mesothelioma, a terminal cancer of the lining of the lungs or abdomen in 2019.
There were 2,369 mesothelioma deaths in Great Britain in 2019. This is seven per cent lower than the 2,540 average over the period 2012-2018 and would seem to suggest deaths have peaked and reflect the long-expected downward trend in mesothelioma deaths.
Specialist lawyers at Irwin Mitchell, who have represented thousands of families affected by mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, say the figures are a distressing reminder that the danger posed by asbestos is far from over and continues to impact the lives of thousands of people.
The report reveals 12,000 lung disease deaths are estimated to be linked to past exposures at work, with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related lung diseases making up 40 per cent of the total.
The top five areas with the most men who died from mesothelioma are unchanged from last year. Figures covering 1981 to 2019 show that Barrow-in-Furness ranks first with 289 deaths, followed by West Dunbartonshire at 289 deaths and North Tyneside with 547 deaths, with South Tyneside and Portsmouth ranked fourth and fifth with 414 and 443 deaths respectively.
The local authority areas are ranked using standard mortality ratios (SMRs), which compares the actual mesothelioma deaths recorded to how many were normally expected to die in the area.
The top three areas with the most female deaths are also unchanged from last year’s report, with Barking and Dagenham top with 87 deaths, followed by Sunderland and Newham (East London) at 156 and 75 deaths respectively. West Dunbartonshire (Clydeside) with 39 deaths and Barrow-in-Furness with 30 deaths are fourth and fifth.
Annual mesothelioma deaths in Great Britain increased year-on-year over a 50 year period, but there is a slight downward trend now. There were ten times as many deaths in the period 2010-2019, compared with 1970-79.
Areas with major shipbuilding activity continue to have higher SMR rates, while men who worked in the construction industry when asbestos was widely used in the post-war years, continue to be most at risk, the HSE said.
Some occupations, such as carpenters, plumbers, electricians and others associated with the construction industry come up most frequently on death certificates for men, with 46 per cent of mesothelioma in men born in the 1940s attributed to building work.
The picture for women is more mixed, due to fewer cases being directly linked to occupation. The report suggests only third of mesotheliomas in women were a result of either occupational or domestic exposure – including the risk of living with a worker exposed to asbestos.
This contrasts with the Gendered Experience of Mesothelioma Study (GEMS) undertaken by the University of Sheffield on behalf of Mesothelioma UK and supported by Irwin Mitchell, which shows women remain largely unaware of the dangers posed by asbestos and can be reluctant to come forward and seek the support they may be entitled to.
The release of the HSE report comes in the wake of Action Mesothelioma Day on 2 July, a time for patients and their families to raise awareness of the illness and the importance of upholding safety standards at all times.
Expert Opinion“Following the challenges faced by the country during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s easy to forget that deaths from asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma remain stubbornly high.
“The vast majority of mesothelioma sufferers’ encountered asbestos in their working lives, often decades prior to diagnosis and these HSE figures show that the risk to health remains very real.
“Northern England and parts of Scotland which were associated with heavy industry such as shipbuilding and the manufacture of asbestos products continue to dominate the figures, but areas such as Portsmouth, Plymouth and Southampton also make the top ten for similar reasons.
“Through our work, we see the terrible impact of this asbestos related cancer on people and their families. While there remains no cure, an early diagnosis gives the best possible chance for treatment and improving quality of life.
“It remains vital to continue to fight not only for justice for those exposed to asbestos, but to raise awareness, and campaign for the removal of asbestos from public buildings and also to ensure better funding for mesothelioma research and improving survival rates.” Adrian Budgen - Partner