Lung cancer

Asbestos-related lung disease risk will persist, researchers warn

Asbestos-related lung disease has only just peaked in Australia and vigilance is still required against conditions such as mesothelioma for year to come, researchers warn.

While asbestos was banned in 2003,  widespread use in building materials prior to this time means it is still commonly found in older homes, resulting in a high degree of occupational exposure for plumbers and electricians, write Matthew Soeberg from the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute and co-authors in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

In 2016, an estimated 4048 people died from diseases caused by occupational exposure to asbestos – 75% lung cancer, 19% malignant mesothelioma and 6% combined larynx cancer, ovarian cancer and asbestosis, they note.

Rates of asbestos-related disease have only now reached their peak, they say, and new cases of malignant and non-malignant disease will continue to be diagnosed in Australia, including hundreds of new cases of malignant mesothelioma in 2016.

The burden of malignant mesothelioma is significant, with 16,679 people diagnosed between 1982 and 2016, the majority being men aged 65 or over. Yet while the incidence of malignant mesothelioma appears to be stabilising, if not slowing, there were still 700 people newly diagnosed in 2016, they write.

Their review notes 2041 hospitalisations for asbestosis between 1998-2015, much higher than number hospitalised for respiratory conditions caused by inhaling gas, chemicals or vapours (833) and or silicosis (517).

National data suggests 43% of the 1148 pleural plaques hospitalisations between 1998-2015 included the presence of asbestos.

While the burden of exposure has most fallen on men, latest data indicate this is changing and we may yet see a spike in asbestos-related disease diagnosed in women, the authors say.

Women make up 20% of the 701 people exposed to asbestos in the past seven years (2010-17) according to the latest report from the Australian Mesothelioma Registry.

Interestingly, almost equal numbers of men and women were exposed in non-occupational settings.

The authors conclude that while 2003 was an important milestone in the prevention of asbestos-related disease, the long latency period between first exposure and disease means that there is no room for complacency.

“Public health efforts must continue to focus on preventing the devastating effects of avoidable asbestos-related diseases, including occupational and non-occupational groups who are potentially at risk from exposure to respirable asbestos fibres,” they warn.

“The Australian community needs to remain vigilant to the public health risk to asbestos exposure from existing asbestos or asbestos-containing materials as well as asbestos-containing materials that are brought into Australia despite regulations being in place.”

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