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British Study Finds Many Workplace Cancer Cases Involve Asbestos Exposure

About 13,600 new cases of cancer and 8,000 cancer deaths in Great Britain each year are linked to workplace exposures, particularly jobs involving exposure to asbestos or diesel engine fumes, a new study shows.

The study, funded by the British Health and Safety Executive, a government work safety agency, found that nearly half of the cancer deaths were among male construction workers who are most likely to encounter asbestos, a known carcinogen and other carcinogens such as silica and diesel exhaust. Breathing asbestos is associated with serious respiratory diseases including lung cancer, malignant mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung, and asbestosis, a chronic scarring of the lung.

The study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, indicated that four in 10 work-related cancer cases and nearly half the occupation-related deaths in Britain involved construction workers. Around 70 percent of the occupation-related deaths in construction workers were linked to asbestos.

Even though asbestos is no long used in new construction, remodeling and maintenance on older buildings containing asbestos materials can put workers at risk of exposure to the asbestos fibers.

“This study gives us a clear insight into how the jobs people do affect their risk of cancer,” Dr. Lesley Rushton, an occupational epidemiologist at Imperial College London said in British Journal of Cancer press release. “We hope these findings will help develop ways of reducing health risks caused by exposure to carcinogens in the workplace.”

The researchers cautioned that the estimates of cancer cases and deaths related to occupational exposure are conservative and could be high as new work-related risk facts are identified.

Asbestos remains the most important occupational risk factor.

Dame Helena Shovelton, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, a non-profit group, said in a BBC news report that asbestos-related diseases kill more people in Great Britain than traffic accidents and the number of deaths is projected to continue increasing in Britain until 2016.

Millions of houses and building were built in Britain and the United States during the decades when asbestos was a widely used building from World War II to about 1980. As long as people are living or working in the buildings, they are at risk of exposure to asbestos if the material is disturbed.

When inhaled, microscopic asbestos fibers typically lodge in the lungs, causing inflammation that can eventually lead to malignancy. Symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases typically take 20 years to 40 years to appear. People recently diagnosed with mesothelioma may have been exposed to asbestos in the 1960s or 1970s.

Approximately, 3,000 people are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma each year in the United States. Most are older workers, retired workers and veterans who were exposed to asbestos in a workplace such as a factory, shipyard or construction site. Construction workers and demolition workers are among the occupations most at risk today of asbestos exposure.

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Last Modified: February 18, 2019

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