Persistently high level of asbestos deaths a reminder that it is not a problem of the past

Despite the complete ban on asbestos in the UK in 1999, the tragedy of disease arising from contact with the lethal substance has not gone away. This much was demonstrated by the recent release of figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that showed 2,523 people died from mesothelioma in 2017, with this cancer of the lining of the organs almost exclusively caused by sufferers inhaling asbestos fibres.

While this figure is similar to the numbers to have been reported over the past half-decade, it means that mesothelioma deaths remain at historic highs. Indeed, rates of mesothelioma – which is nearly always fatal – almost doubled between 1995 and 2017.

There are thought to be comparable numbers of people dying from asbestos-related lung cancers; however, the difficulty in establishing a cause for lung cancer makes this harder to accurately measure. In the meantime, the HSE has predicted that annual numbers will remain at their current levels for the remainder of this decade before it expects to see a decline.

The importance of precautions for today’s workers re-emphasised 

Although the sustained high level of mesothelioma deaths over the last few years can be largely attributed to occupational asbestos exposure that occurred many decades ago before the dangers of the material became fully known, it remains present in hundreds of thousands of buildings.

Furthermore, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and charity Mesothelioma UK have warned tradespeople and others potentially likely to encounter the substance to take precautions.

Asbestos continues to be a particular problem in schools, for example, as shown by the recent story that the Department for Education (DfE) has referred nearly 700 schools to the HSE due to concerns that they were failing to safely manage asbestos in their buildings.

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