There’s an epidemic that is starting to take hold in many Western countries. It already claims the lives of 1800 people in the UK every year, but it will be another 11 years before it reaches its peak, when up to one in five lives may be at risk.
Yet it’s a disease that nobody has heard of, nobody has written about, and medicine seems to be at a loss as to how best to treat it. It is mesothelioma, a cancer of the lungs and chest that is a reaction to exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos is now a banned material, but it was commonly used as an insulator, in filters and cements, and in boards until the 1980s.
Those most at risk are men who worked with it, so carpenters and joiners are especially susceptible. But there have already been cases of wives and daughters, who were exposed to workmen’s overalls at home, dying from the disease.
Mesothelioma is a very slow-acting cancer, and can take up to 25 years to develop. The epidemic is expected to occur in the UK, the rest of Europe and Australia, where asbestos use has been particularly high. It is thought that the disease may have already peaked in the USA as health officials there were quicker to act in banning the material.
Symptoms can include chest pain and breathlessness, but sometimes there are no indications of the disease. Treatment is limited, and surgery to remove the tumours has occurred in just 20 patients in the past five years in the UK.
Another option is radiotherapy, but the best therapy is not known because there has not been any research up to now into the disease and treatment.
Presumably people who worked in buildings with asbestos insulation will not develop the cancer. If they do, a tragedy may become a national catastrophe, and one that was avoidable if our public health ‘watchdogs’ had the same commitment to our wellbeing as their American counterparts.
(Source: British Medical Journal, 2004; 328: 237-8).
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