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Asbestos risk in Australia similar to in crisis-hit Britain

One in 170 of all British men born in the 1940s will die of mesothelioma, a cancer associated with exposure to asbestos, latest projections show.

The United Kingdom is in the grips of an asbestos epidemic with the latest projections showing one in 170 of all British men born in the 1940s will die of mesothelioma.

While the UK mesothelioma rate is the highest in the world, it is followed on a per capita basis by Australia – with both countries experiencing a projected rise in death rates and grappling to remediate homes and buildings which commonly contained bonded asbestos sheeting and lagging around pipes.

The British Parliament this year passed legislation to operate a $600 million fund - funded by the insurance industry - for mesothelioma victims diagnosed after July 2012 who can no longer trace former employers to sue for exposure. About 300 payouts of about $200,000 are expected each year.

Ironically, the British Houses of Parliament themselves are extensively contaminated with asbestos and facing closure for up to five years while they undergo a removal and refurbishment program at a reported cost of $5 billion.

New research by the independent regulator the Health and Safety Executive  - the British equivalent of Safe Work Australia - shows that the British death rate to mesothelioma has increased to 2534 in 2012, up by 243 on the year before.

Meanwhile, the latest figures from Safe Work Australia show that in 2011 there were 606 mesothelioma deaths and 125 asbestosis deaths - a total of 731.

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The head of Australia's Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Peter Tighe said both countries were facing similar risk from the widespread use of asbestos sheeting in Australia, and asbestos lagging around pipes in the UK.

But he warned that the use of asbestos per capita was greater in Australia than the UK – through the prolific use of sheeting in housing and buildings constructed between 1950 and 1970.

The British and Australian asbestos experience will be discussed  when Australia hosts the First International Conference on Asbestos Awareness and Management next week (November 16). The conference will also address the third wave of mesothelioma deaths currently being experienced across both countries due to home renovations and the disturbance and degeneration of asbestos materials due to age.

An investigation by the British health and safety regulator into occupational exposure found carpenters carried the highest risk for mesothelioma – with a 1 in 17 lifetime risk for someone born in the 1940s.

The lifetime risk for construction workers was 1 in 55, compared with 1 in 125 for electricians, plumbers and painters.

In Australia, the National Dataset for Compensation Based Statistics found occupation groups with higher than average rates of workers' compensation claims for mesothelioma between 2005-2008 included power generation plant operators, carpenters and joiners, telecommunications tradespeople, metal fitters and machinists, electricians and plumbers.

Mr Tighe noted that peak mortality is not expected to be reached until 2020 in both Britain and Australia – due to the lag time after peak exposure periods in the 1970s.

In the UK, 1 in 40 of all male cancer deaths below the age of 80 is due to mesothelioma, with women accounting for less than 20 per cent of mesothelioma deaths.

Average life expectancy from diagnosis to death is nine months.