Initially hailed as a miracle mineral, asbestos can be deadly when treated incorrectly. Here’s a quick introduction to this infamous material - and the growth of asbestos-related medical conditions.

1. There are four different asbestos-related medical conditions

Asbestos becomes a health risk when its internal fibres are disturbed. When these tiny fibres are inhaled, they can irritate the lungs and cause a number of asbestos-related medical conditions including:

  • Mesothelioma
  • Asbestos-induced lung cancer
  • Asbestosis
  • Non-malignant pleural disease

According to the World Health Organisation there are around 43,000 deaths from mesothelioma around the world every year. In the UK there were 2,538 mesothelioma deaths in 2013 and 477 deaths from asbestosis. Non-malignant pleural disease is not fatal, though is considered to be a pre-cancerous condition by some medical professionals. There were 580 new cases in 2014 (Health and Safety Executive).

2. Medical conditions often go undetected for decades

After inhaling asbestos fibres, it normally takes 20 to 50 years for the symptoms of an asbestos-related condition to emerge. Sometimes this period of latency can be as long as 60 years. It’s important to remember that exposure to asbestos does not automatically mean you will develop medical complications, but it does mean you are at greater risk.

Carpenters, joiners, plumbers, laggers, engineers, electricians, pipe fitters, metal plate workers and painters are particularly likely to have been exposed to asbestos. However, many other people will have been at risk, including teachers, shop-workers or those involved in mining. There has been a recent rise in reported cases of asbestos-related disease in female manufacturing workers, as well as victims of secondary exposure in so-called 'Dad's Overalls' cases.

3. Asbestos-related deaths are on the rise

Because of the time it takes for asbestos-related conditions to develop, deaths from asbestos are on the rise in Britain. Mesothelioma death rates, for example, have increased more than eleven-fold in men and eight-fold in women since the early 1970s (Cancer Research UK). As for asbestosis there were 516 related deaths in 2013 compared with 109 in 1978. Deaths from asbestos are expected to peak in Britain in 2017-2018 and decline thereafter (HSE).

4. UK mortality rates are among the highest in the world

The UK has one of the highest asbestos-related death rates in the world. That’s because Britain was one of the world’s biggest importers of asbestos - and continued to permit its use long after it had been banned in other counties (HSE).

5. Men over the age of 60 are most at risk of mesothelioma

The chances of being diagnosed with mesothelioma increase with age. Just 7% of cases are diagnosed in people under the age of 60, whereas 47% of cases are found in people aged 75 and over. Nobody under 30 has ever been diagnosed with the condition (Cancer Research UK).

It’s also worth noting that mesothelioma is around five times more common in men than women (Cancer Research UK). For every 100,000 people, 14 males had the condition in 2013 compared with just four females (British Lung Foundation).

6. Asbestos is to blame for the UK’s mesothelioma cases

It’s thought that asbestos is the main cause of 94% of the UK’s cases of mesothelioma (Cancer Research UK). And while it’s true that even a one-time exposure to asbestos can result in mesothelioma, the disease is more commonly caused by long-term exposure in the working environment.

7. Asbestos-induced lung cancer is under-reported

There are no precise figures on how many lung cancer deaths are caused by asbestos. That’s because if a patient has a history of smoking, exposure to asbestos is almost always overlooked as a possible cause. Yet new research suggests there are probably about as many asbestos-related lung cancer deaths each year as there are mesothelioma deaths. That would mean there are currently over 2,000 deaths per year in the UK due to asbestos-related lung cancer - significantly more than the number reported (HSE).

8. Asbestos in toothpaste, cigarettes and The Wizard of Oz

It’s not just buildings that asbestos has been used in. From the 1930s to 50s its use was so widespread that it could be found in everything from filter papers to toothpaste - apparently for the abrasive qualities of asbestos fibres. Raw chrysolite asbestos was also sold commonly as fake snow and can be seen falling on Dorothy, Scarecrow and Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

9. Asbestos is still being mined

It has been illegal to use asbestos for new products in the UK since 1992. Yet hundreds of thousands of tonnes of asbestos are still being mined in many countries - including Russia, China, Brazil and Kazakhstan.