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Asbestos-related cancer epidemic looms

The British Lung Foundation says government action to improve services for people with asbestos-related cancer has come just in time to address the forthcoming UK epidemic of the disease.

Around 2,000 people died of mesothelioma in the UK in 2005 and an epidemic of the cancer is due in 2011-15 as people exposed to asbestos in the 1960s and 1970s are diagnosed with the disease. Recent cases show that builders, plumbers, gas fitters and electricians are now the largest high-risk groups - they are most likely to come across asbestos in the buildings where they work. A British Lung Foundation YouGov survey shows that more than a third (37%) of the British public is still unaware that contact with asbestos can cause cancer and only half (55%) are aware that their boiler cupboard could contain the deadly building material.

The Department of Health announcement was made on Action Mesothelioma Day (27 February) when a campaign led by the British Lung Foundation aimed to raise awareness of the disease.

"We welcome this initiative by the Department of Health to improve services for people with the asbestos-caused cancer mesothelioma," says Helena Shovelton, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation. "We have campaigned for the disease to be made a national priority because it is one of the few cancers that has seen no improvement under the Cancer Plan despite the coming epidemic. This initiative will help to ensure that people with this cruel disease now have a better chance of receiving the best treatment and care."

The British Lung Foundation commissioned the survey to find out how much people really knew about the hazards of asbestos in the home. The results show that while almost everyone (98%) has heard of asbestos, nearly two-thirds (65%) have never heard of mesothelioma, the fatal cancer of the lining of the lung caused by inhaling asbestos fibres. It also reveals that there is still widespread ignorance about the health hazards of asbestos and where it might be found in the home, despite the fact that anyone who comes into contact with it could be at risk. 

Nearly half of those surveyed (45%) don't know which types of asbestos are the most dangerous; more than a third (36%) are unaware that a corrugated roof could contain asbestos; more than one in 10 (12%) wrongly think that asbestos might be found in their fridges; 3% wrongly thought of looking for it in their sofa; and less than a third (29%) thought that homes built between 1960 and 1975 might be at risk when in fact these were the peak years for asbestos use, and if homes were built or renovated then they could contain quantities of the material.