Global Cancer Increase and the Asbestos Hazard
The world is experiencing an explosion of cancers in younger people. According to reports circulated earlier this month the:
global incidence of early-onset cancer increased by 79.1% and the number of early-onset cancer deaths increased by 27.7% between 1990 and 2019 The projections indicated that the global number of incidence and deaths of early-onset cancer would increase by 31% and 21% in 2030, respectively.1
Whilst dietary risk factors (diet high in red meat, low in fruits, high in sodium and low in milk, etc), alcohol consumption and tobacco use were postulated as the main risk factors, human exposures to cancer-causing asbestos should not be overlooked. Many of the people in the age 50 and under cohort now presenting with cancer were born in the 1970s and 1980s, decades during which the global use of asbestos was at its highest.
According to the World Health Organization:
All types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs). Exposure to asbestos occurs through inhalation of fibres in air in the working environment, ambient air in the vicinity of point sources such as factories handling asbestos, or indoor air in housing and buildings containing friable (crumbly) asbestos materials. Currently about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace. 2
Scientists from the Western Pacific region warned of the looming cancer epidemic in their 2018 paper: Global Asbestos Disaster:
Present efforts to eliminate this man-made problem, in fact an epidemiological disaster, and preventing exposures leading to it are insufficient in most countries in the world. Applying programs and policies, such as those for the elimination of all kind of asbestos usethat is banning of new asbestos use and tight control and management of existing structures containing asbestosneed revision and resources. The International Labor Organization/World Health Organization Joint Program for the Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases needs to be revitalized. Exposure limits do not protect properly against cancer but for asbestos removal and equivalent exposure elimination work, we propose a limit value of 1000 fibres/m3.3
Two years after Sugio Furuya, Odgerel Chimel-Ochir and their colleagues issued warnings of an epidemiological disaster, the Global Cancer Observatory (Globocan) reported that globally there had been 30,800 new cases of mesothelioma the signature cancer associated with exposure to asbestos and 26,278 deaths from mesothelioma in 2020.4 Forty-five per cent of mesothelioma mortality in that year occurred in Europe; the next worst affected region, accounting for 31.7% of all mesothelioma deaths, was Asia where asbestos use remains a fact of life.5
The mesothelioma incidence in Russia, which has been the worlds largest asbestos producer since overtaking Canada in the 1970s, remains opaque.6 Government and commercial asbestos stakeholders in Russia collaborate closely to protect international markets and neutralize threats to the industry, much as their Canadian predecessors had done.7 Whilst civic leaders, medical professionals and local people in Russian asbestos mining towns deny the existence of the asbestos health risk, Globocan recorded 1,118 new cases of mesothelioma in Russia in 2020 and 965 deaths. Considering that the Soviet Union produced 1,065,889 tonnes (t) of asbestos in 1970 and 2,070,000t8 in 1980, it is highly unlikely that these figures accurately reflect the countrys incidence of mesothelioma.9 An optimist might believe that the fact that someone somewhere in Russia is tracking cases of this fatal cancer is a positive step; a seasoned observer of Russias asbestos industry might dismiss it as window dressing.10 Only time will tell.
September 20, 2023
1 Gregory, A. Cancer cases in under-50s worldwide up nearly 80% in three decades, study finds. September 5, 2023.
Zhao, J., Xu L., et al. Global trends in incidence, death, burden and risk factors of early-onset cancer from 1990 to 2019. September 5, 2023.
2 WHO. Asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases. February 15, 2018.
3 Furuya, S. Odgerel, C-O., et al. Global Asbestos Disaster. 2018.
4 Globocan 2020. Mesothelioma Fact Sheet. Accessed September 18, 2023.
5 The Global Cancer Observatory (Globocan) collects data from national and regional cancer registries; the legitimacy of the information accumulated is dependent on the quality of the data sourced from these registries. Globocan is an initiative of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
6 Canada banned asbestos mining, processing and use in 2018; asbestos cancer accounts for the majority of all occupationally-caused deaths in Canada.
7 Kazan-Allen, L. Canadian Asbestos: A Global Concern. Accessed September 18, 2023.
8 The Soviet Union production figures for 1970 and 1980 included asbestos production in Russia and Kazakhstan; the figures for 1990 reported Russian (685,000t) and Kazakh (160,829t) production separately.
9 Research published in 2004 by Dr Antti Tossavainen found that 170 tons of produced and consumed asbestos will cause at least one death from mesothelioma, most often as a consequence of occupational exposure. That being the case, the production of ~3,000,000t in the Soviet Union in 1970 and 1980, was likely to have caused ~20,000 cases of mesothelioma, the majority of which would have occurred in Russia rather than Kazakhstan. The time from first exposure to asbestos to the manifestation of mesothelioma can be decades so people who were diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2020 were probably exposed to asbestos in 1970-80.
Tossavainen A. Global Use of Asbestos and the Incidence of Mesothelioma. Int J Occ Env Health. 2004; Jan/Mar:22-25.
10 Replies to my emails received from medical experts in Japan and the US concerning the unreliability of Russian mesothelioma data confirmed my suspicions regarding the likely inaccuracy of the data.