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Important Study Details Cancer Epidemic

A major study, published in today's edition of the New Zealand Medical Journal, details an epidemic of asbestos-related cancer in New Zealand.

The study was carried out by Tord Kjellstrom, Professor of Environmental Health, and senior research fellow Pamela Smartt, both from Auckland University.

"New Zealand has entered an unrivalled period of occupational cancer deaths resulting from past workplace exposure to airborne asbestos fibres. The steep rise in mesothelioma incidence is likely to be accompanied by increases in other asbestos related diseases such as lung cancer," the study says.

The New Zealand Medical Association Chairman Dr Pippa MacKay said the study was an important one, and clearly showed the extent that asbestos-related cancer had increased.

"Although still a rare disease, this study indicates that doctors will unfortunately be seeing even more cases of malignant mesothelioma in the future. It highlights the need for doctors to be particularly vigilant, especially when faced with a patient who has worked in construction and manufacturing industries which used asbestos," Dr MacKay said.

The study showed that the rate of malignant mesothelioma (a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos) has increased progressively in New Zealand since the 1960s, and reached 25 per million for men in 1995 and 3 per million for women. Once diagnosed, malignant mesothelioma is rapidly fatal. The incidence of this disease is expected to double by 2010.

Concerns about the health impact of asbestos exposure were first raised in the 1970s. The number of reported cases increased during the 1980s.

"This study is the first to establish that a 'mesothelioma epidemic' has begun in New Zealand and that the pattern of increase closely mirrors that of imports of crude asbestos approximately 30 years earlier," the authors say.

The study found that between 1962-71, 18 new cases of MM were registered in New Zealand (1.8 cases per year). From 1987-96, 330 new cases were registered (33 cases per year), an eighteen-fold increase. To put it into context, the study said the "conservative" estimate for all asbestos-related cancer deaths was approaching that of malignant melanoma and the "maximum" estimate exceeds that of traffic accident deaths.

The study said importation of crude asbestos into New Zealand peaked in 1974, and no crude asbestos was imported after 1991. The lag time between the exposure to asbestos and the onset of malignant mesothelioma is usually several decades.

The study says the large difference in the malignant mesothelioma trends for men and women strongly supports the notion that the disease is primarily an occupational cancer associated with the increase of asbestos use about 30 years earlier.

The occupations with the highest risk of malignant mesothelioma are construction and manufacturing, including builders, carpenters, renovators, asbestos removal workers, shipbuilding and repair workers, watersiders, asbestos product manufacturers, and railway and power station workers.


Dr Pippa MacKay (03) 351 6198 (wk) (025) 484 718 (mobile)

Shani Naylor Communications Manager (04) 472 4741 (wk) (025) 284 1081 (mobile)


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