The continued rise is a growing concern as a younger workforce emerges without the experience to properly identify the toxic mineral.
“There is this misperception here that asbestos has gone away,” Darren Arkins, senior inspector at the Health and Safety Authority (HAS) in Ireland, told Asbestos.com. “But we have the same difficulties as everyone else. It’s still a problem. We must remain vigilant.”
Irish lawmakers hinted at banning asbestos with legislation introduced in 1994 and 1998. A general prohibition was issued in 2000 under European Union regulations.
Mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer, is caused primarily by exposure to microscopic asbestos fibers, which can be inhaled or ingested unknowingly. Occupational exposure is responsible for the vast majority of cases.
Asbestos was used prominently in Ireland from 1960 to the mid-1980s, before its toxicity became well known. It was coveted in the construction industry for its ability to resist heat and strengthen many materials.
According to Ireland’s National Cancer Registry, 24 deaths were attributed to mesothelioma each year from 1994-2010. The majority of cases were male and pleural mesothelioma, which develops in the thin membrane surrounding the lungs.
The male death toll from mesothelioma reached a high of 36 in 2009, but the cancer registry estimates that number will reach 68 by 2020, before it starts to decline in the following years.
The rise and decline is predicted primarily because of mesothelioma’s lengthy latency period (20-50 years) and the peak of asbestos use in Ireland.
“We’re coming to the far limits of the latency period for high exposure in the industry,” Arkins said. “There is a strong belief that we’re hitting a peak now. I’d expect the numbers to drop after 2020, but we might not hit zero for a very long time.”
The significant rise is especially concerning because the overall cancer death rate in Ireland already has plateaued and begun to decline, according the registry.
In the U.S., approximately 2,500 people die each year from mesothelioma.
Arkins believes for every mesothelioma death attributed to asbestos exposure, there are two or three lung cancer deaths caused by asbestos exposure.
Despite increased awareness efforts by HAS, Arkins worries asbestos exposure will continue for two major reasons: The recovering economy has led to an increase in renovations and refurbishments across the country, and the workforce is changing.
Many younger workers never dealt with asbestos in new construction — like older workers did years ago — and often don’t recognize asbestos products when they encounter them during a refurbishment.
“That level of experience [recognizing asbestos] is disappearing in the workforce,” he said. “A lot of these guys now would never have seen or come across asbestos before.”
Ireland requires everyone in the building industry to take Safe Pass training annually, where asbestos and general construction dust is discussed extensively. The class has helped younger workers become more aware of the dangers of asbestos.
By law, when a certain level of asbestos is found in a structure about to be renovated or demolished, the HSA must be notified. These notifications have doubled since 2010.
Arkins said a majority of the notifications came from the private sector, and he expects the number will continue to rise. There also is the issue of residential work on older homes, where regulations are not as easily enforced.
“Residential can be a big problem,” he said. “You want some refurbishment, and you get Billy the Builder down the road to do it, and he does it however he wants. Contractors should know the regulations, but they have to inform the homeowner.”
Ireland also has no disposal facility for asbestos waste. Materials must be shipped abroad, most often to Germany. That raises the cost of business, which can lead to risky shortcuts.
“Communication is key. We’re always trying to get the word out,” Arkins said. “And people are generally more health conscious than years ago. Before, it was such a macho culture with guys smoking 20 cigarettes a day, saying dust wouldn’t bother me. Today, there’s a big push to have a healthier workplace, and that helps everyone.”