The role of asbestos in the UK’s high lung cancer rate is being missed

Lung cancer sufferers are missing out on substantial financial help because the link with asbestos is being missed in some cases, the National Asbestos Helpline has reported.

More than 43,000 people a year are diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK, but the Health and Safety Executive estimates that deadly asbestos dust causes only 2,500 of the total lung cancers.

The National Asbestos Helpline believes the number of asbestos-related lung cancers is significantly higher than this and is calling on sufferers and health professionals to consider whether asbestos is a potential cause.

Research has found a clear connection between high levels of asbestos dust exposure and the risk of lung cancer. But it can sometimes be difficult to attribute lung cancer to asbestos and where the sufferer is a smoker it is often assumed that smoking is the cause. Smoking is, of course, the biggest cause of lung cancers.

Tobacco and asbestos multiply the risk
However, smokers who have also been exposed to high amounts of asbestos dust have a much greater risk of developing lung cancer. The two toxins – tobacco and asbestos – work together to multiply the risk. The higher the concentration of asbestos dust, the higher the risk of lung cancer.

Carl Griffiths, from the National Asbestos Helpline, says:

“We want health professionals and people to be aware that asbestos can also cause lung cancer, as well as smoking. Patients need to consider whether they have been exposed to asbestos dust in their lifetime and tell their doctors about exposure. Smokers should not assume tobacco is the cause of their lung cancer if they have been exposed to asbestos dust within the past 10 to 50 years. Medical staff also need to consider whether the patient has been exposed to asbestos dust.

It could make all the difference to their level of care and for making provision for their family’s future. Government benefits and compensation are available to help victims of the deadly asbestos legacy.”

What is the patient’s work history?
To consider whether a lung cancer may have been caused by asbestos it is necessary to explore the patient’s work history. For many tradesmen, manual workers and engineers, asbestos exposure in the workplace will have been inevitable during the past sixty years due to its widespread use in industry, construction and manufacturing.

Those who have worked as laggers, electricians, dockworkers, engineers, joiners, plumbers, welders, builders, fitters and heating engineers or in any factory where asbestos was widely used (e.g. power stations, shipyards and railways) are likely to have come into contact with asbestos dust.

Asbestos causes lung cancer when the inhaled fibres become trapped in the lungs. Over a long period of time, the asbestos fibres accumulate and cause inflammation and damage to the lungs. After many years, often decades, the asbestos fibres cause enough irritation and cellular damage to the lung to cause tumours to grow.