The study of mesothelioma cancer trends is a part of the larger science of mesothelioma epidemiology. Researchers in this branch of science study data from large populations to gauge the causes and effects of a disease with the hope of controlling or preventing its spread. Because most of these cancers are caused by exposure to asbestos, the global trends of the disease are closely related to trends in asbestos exposure.
Occupational asbestos exposure accounts for most of the world’s exposure to asbestos. In many of the world’s industrialized countries, workplace exposure to asbestos reached its peak and is receding. This is because the mining, consumption and manufacturing of asbestos were banned outright, were limited by law and regulation, or declined because of an increased understanding of asbestos-related health risks.
Multiple research studies have stated that the incidence of asbestos-related cancers in industrialized nations has not yet peaked, but predict the number of cases will max out during the 2020s and 2030s. In the United States, however, it is likely that the peak in mesothelioma incidence has already occurred.
In contrast, developing counties such as China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Brazil, India, Pakistan, Mexico, Indonesia and Thailand increased the use, production and exportation of asbestos. In these countries, asbestos exposure is still on the rise. Researchers predict that ongoing asbestos consumption in developing nations will contribute to additional disease in the future, but exactly how much is hard to quantify.
Precise analyses are difficult because data models differ from country to country. This is because of historic differences in asbestos exposure and consumption. In some countries, accurate data on asbestos use and disease are not available. In addition, because the cancer’s latency period can be anywhere from 15 to 60 years, it is difficult to predict mortality curves with speculative data. Still, most researchers estimate that it will take at least another 50 years before asbestos-related cancers all but disappear.
Among the countries with available data, the highest incidence rates of mesothelioma occurred in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Australia. These countries are also among those that took steps to control asbestos exposure beginning in the 1980s, so their rates are expected to decline over the next few decades.
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Source: National Cancer Institute, SEER Cancer Incidence Rates.
The elevated incidence of mesothelioma cases in the United States over the past few decades stems from exposures to high levels of airborne asbestos fibers from the 1930s through the 1960s. The groups most exposed were insulators and tradesmen working near insulators, especially in the shipbuilding industry immediately before and during World War II. Because of the heavy use of asbestos in Navy ships, Navy veterans are among those most affected by the cancer.
Although asbestos use is not officially banned in the United States, government regulations have severely restricted the toxic mineral's use since the 1970s. As a result, researchers believe the incidence of mesothelioma may have peaked in the United States around 2010.
The annual number of asbestos cancer cases in the United States appears to be on the decline, yet people exposed to asbestos decades ago will continue to develop the disease in coming years because of its lengthy latency period. One study projected approximately 85,000 cases in the United States from 2008 to 2054.
Despite undeniable evidence that asbestos exposure can trigger mesothelioma and several other serious respiratory illnesses, its worldwide incidence continues to rise. Industrialized nations will likely experience a peak in the cancer's incidence over the next two decades, but the rates in developing nations are rising. This is because they are increasing asbestos use instead of reducing it.
The trend for the U.K. is similar to that of the United States except that it is shifted several years into the future. Maximum asbestos exposure in England occurred in the construction industry as late as the 1970s. The annual number of asbestos cancer deaths in Great Britain rose dramatically from 153 deaths in 1968 to 2,310 in 2011. Today, asbestos-related diseases including mesothelioma are the greatest cause of job-related deaths in the U.K.
The numbers are predicted to peak at around 1,950 to 2,450 deaths per year between 2011 and 2015. Following this peak, the number of deaths is expected to decline rapidly. Between 1968 and 2050, about 90,000 deaths from mesothelioma in Great Britain are predicted, 65,000 of which will occur after 2001.
The Netherlands introduced the first preventive measures on asbestos in the mid-1970s. The mortality of pleural mesothelioma in men increased from 65 cases in 1969 to 265 cases in 1998. A peak number of 501 cases was recorded in 2005.
One study predicted that the number of deaths will level off around 2017 and then decrease rapidly. It estimated the number of deaths between 2000 and 2028 will exceed 12,000.
Asbestos was mined extensively in the states of Western Australia (at the Wittenoom mine where crocidolite - blue asbestos - was mined from 1938 to 1966) and New South Wales (where chrysotile - white asbestos - was mined at Baryulgil from 1940 to 1979).
In the three decades after 1945, Australia was the world's highest per capita user of asbestos. As a result, it has the world’s highest recorded incidence of mesothelioma, and a large percentage of the total population is affected by this disease.
Australia documented 649 mesothelioma cases in 2003, and 551 deaths were reported in 2007. Some models suggest Australia has reached its peak; others predict the peak years will come between 2014 and 2021.
In New South Wales, the Australian state that produced the largest amount of asbestos, there were 2,639 cases of mesothelioma among males aged 20 years and older from 1972 to 2003. The number of mesotheliomas in NSW between 2004 and 2060 is predicted to be approximately 6,500.
Fast Fact: The Australian government shut down the town of Wittenoom in 1966 because of heavy asbestos contamination.
Mortality among French men aged 50-79 from asbestos-related cancer is expected to increase, reaching a peak averaging between 1,140 and 1,300 deaths annually from the years 2030 to 2040. From 1997 to 2050, deaths will range between 44,480 and 57,020 men.
In Denmark, the future annual number of mesothelioma cases is expected to peak around 2015, with 93 cases among men born before 1955.
In Japan, asbestos consumption remained high in the last few decades with relevant amounts used until 2000. Thus, a very high number of deaths from the cancer are predicted in Japan during the next several decades.
Fast Fact: At its peak in 1974, Japan imported 352,316 tons of asbestos. Between 1995 and 1999, there were about 500 pleural mesothelioma deaths per year.
The world’s top producers of asbestos are China, Kazakhstan, Russia and Brazil. India, Pakistan, Mexico, Indonesia and Thailand are among the world's biggest importers. Over the next half century, it is reasonable to predict that while mesothelioma deaths should decline where asbestos mining, manufacturing and consumption has curtailed, the opposite trend should become apparent in places where asbestos exposure remains a hazard to those who mine asbestos or produce and consume asbestos products.
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