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Important information in asbestosis paper

Important information in asbestosis paper

Friday 5 November.

Deaths from asbestos-related lung disease in New Zealand men have been grossly underestimated, according to a paper in the latest New Zealand Medical Journal

In a study of national mortality and hospitalisation records going back to 1974 (when raw asbestos was first imported into New Zealand), researcher Dr Pam Smartt of the Department of Public Health and General Practice at the Christchurch School of Medicine shows that death rates from asbestosis increased up till 1999 but less than one in five deaths from this condition were directly attributed to this cause on the death certificate.

Dr Smartt’s research, published in the 5 November issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal, showed the vast majority (83 percent) of asbestosis deaths were attributed to other forms of respiratory disease, and only detailed examination of the records revealed asbestosis as a contributory condition.

“The fact that 20 to 40 percent of adult New Zealand males are likely to have had some form of workplace exposure to asbestos is extremely significant,” said Dr Tricia Briscoe, Chairman of the New Zealand Medical Association. “This level of exposure means it is important for doctors to be aware of the risks when doing medical check-ups and consultations.

“It’s also important to note that a tobacco smoker who has been exposed to asbestos is ten times more likely to run into asbestos-related health problems than a non-smoker with same level of exposure.”

In her research, Dr Smartt found that while male deaths from all lung cancers peaked in 1984 and then declined, the deaths from asbestos-related lung cancers and from asbestosis generally continued to climb until the late 1990s. As well as lung or pleural cancer, asbestosis-related conditions including respiratory disease, cancers in other sites, and circulatory disease also increased in that period.

Building trades workers were by far the largest group affected, accounting for almost half the asbestosis deaths. Metal and machinery trades workers and labourers were the next largest occupational groups, followed by physical, mathematical and engineering science professionals and corporate managers (including quarry and construction managers).

Smoking hugely magnifies the impact of asbestos exposure, with 80 percent of those men registered with asbestosis being either smokers or ex-smokers. Medical care including immediate cessation of smoking, prompt treatment of respiratory infections and regular screening for lung cancer and related malignancies is essential, Dr Smartt said.

“The bulk of the reported world-wide evidence suggests that occupational diseases (including asbestosis) are under-diagnosed and under-reported, and that reported cases are just the tip of the asbestos diseases iceberg,” she concluded.


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