Many unidentified cases of asbestos lung cancer
Ninety percent of lung cancer cases are caused by smoking but lung cancer can also be caused by exposure to hazardous substances, including asbestos. Lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure is clinically indistinguishable from that caused by other factors.
Exposure to asbestos increases your risk of developing lung cancer. This is massively increased if the person who is exposed to asbestos also smokes, more so than the risk from these two separate factors added together. This means that if someone has been exposed to asbestos, they can reduce their chances of developing lung cancer by avoiding smoking.
Most cases of asbestos lung cancer occur at least 15 years after exposure to asbestos. The symptoms of lung cancer do not usually show until the cancer has spread. Therefore, the outlook is poorer than for some other types of cancer. Survival rates vary on how far the cancer has spread. Treatment of lung cancer may include surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that affects the mesothelium which is the protective lining that surrounds many organs in the body. The most common area to be affected is around the lungs.
A Birmingham electrician died in 2007 after being exposed to asbestos in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 2006, he started suffering from a wheezy cough. He thought it might have been caused by inhaling dust as part of his work or maybe because of asthma. However, after seeing a specialist, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He died just a year later and his post-mortem revealed that the rest of his body, apart from his lungs, was healthy. After his death, his wife said, “Even now, tradesmen need to be warned of the dangers of asbestos. They are repairing or demolishing older buildings and the dangers are there. Their employers should ensure they go on regular courses, and have the proper equipment. But the workers should also be asking their employers if there is a danger there before starting the job.”
More than 4000 people die every year from asbestos-related diseases. Of these, 2000 die from mesothelioma.
Up until to 2006, there were 50-80 new cases every year of lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure leading to ‘assessed disablement’ making the sufferers entitled to compensation. In 2006, the criteria for compensation were changed to include cases of lung cancer where individuals had been exposed to asbestos, not just cases where there was evidence of asbestosis (scarring of the lungs caused by exposure to asbestos). This has led to an increase in the number of cases: in 2008, there were 240 cases, in 2009, there were 335 cases.
The government currently estimates that for every mesothelioma case, there is a case of asbestos lung cancer, a ratio of 1:1. It is often difficult to determine what has caused lung cancer and the HSE estimates, that based on this ratio, there are many cases of asbestos lung cancer where it is not known that the cancer has been caused by asbestos exposure.