The lethal threat from asbestos fibres may have been seriously underestimated, medical researchers are warning, as thousands of people with asbestos-related illnesses wait to hear whether they can sue for compensation.
The Ministry of Justice is expected to reveal this week whether it will reverse a landmark judgment that prevents those diagnosed with pleural plaques – an early indicator of contamination – from taking legal action.
Although as many as 90,000 people a year may be developing the condition, the government's Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) has recommended against adding it to the approved list of "compensatable disablement" schemes.
People exposed to asbestos may go on to develop mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers. Once considered diseases associated with heavy industry that targeted men in asbestos-processing factories and shipyards, patterns of premature fatalities have started to emerge in other professions, including electricians, plumbers, garage mechanics, teachers and even hairdressers.
Estimates by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggest the UK epidemic will peak in the middle of the next decade with about 5,000 deaths a year. The period between diagnosis of mesothelioma and death is usually brief.
The sale of asbestos was banned in the UK 10 years ago. In some buildings it has been removed. Elsewhere it remains, often insulating pipes in ducts where electricians work. Some hair salon blowdryers were at one stage insulated with asbestos. The new evidence has emerged from studies commissioned to assess the impact of long-term exposure.
A report by scientists from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) this summer reclassified certain cancers and concluded that more than previously thought are related to asbestos fibres. "Sufficient evidence is now available to show that asbestos also causes cancer of the larynx (throat) and of the ovary," the group reported in the Lancet Oncology journal.
Estimating that as many as 125 million people worldwide still work in asbestos-contaminated offices and factories, the scientists noted: "Although asbestos has been banned or restricted in most of the industrialised world, its use is increasing in parts of Asia, South America and the former Soviet Union."
More than half of work-related deaths from six major cancers in the UK are due to asbestos, according to a team of London-based public health researchers. "Estimates for all six cancers [in terms of the number of occupation-related deaths] but leukaemia, are greater than those currently used in UK health and safety strategy planning," the paper in Occupational Environmental magazine concludes. Written by, among others, Dr Lesley Rushton at Imperial College, London, the report warns that its figures are "likely to be a conservative estimate of true risk". She told the Guardian: "You spend a third of your life at work. You need to take the risks very seriously. One of the problems is that many people don't realise when they are exposed to asbestos.
"We haven't reduced exposure to asbestos as much as we should have. If you look at the compensation statistics, then you can see that women diagnosed with mesothelioma rarely receive payments. They can't prove it was occupationally related." Rushton is now working on new estimates for asbestos-related death rates.
The true level of asbestos-related deaths is partially disguised by the fact that those who contract lung cancer tend to blame themselves for smoking at some stage in their life rather than making a connection to asbestos. The HSE in its occupational disease models, however, works on the basis that for every death from mesothelioma there has been another asbestos-related lung cancer fatality.
This week, the Ministry of Justice is expected to announce whether it will overturn a landmark House of Lords judgment made in 2007 that barred claimants from suing for compensation if they have been diagnosed as suffering from pleural plaques. The Scottish parliament has already passed legislation to overturn the law lords' decision.
In its comments on the condition, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council declared: "The condition is likely to be common, with one expert suggesting that as many as 36,000 to 90,000 people a year may be developing plaques."
In explaining why pleural plaques should not automatically trigger statutory payouts, the IIAC said: "They do not alter the structure of the lungs or restrict their expansion. Therefore, they would not be expected to cause an important degree of impaired lung function or disability.
• This article was amended on 20 July 2009. The original referred to the Lancet Oncology publication as a magazine. This has been corrected.
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 19 July 2009