Asbestos: The Legacy


The devastating asbestos legacy in the UK is set to become ever more pervasive and be with us for many decades to come. The history of asbestos use in the UK is well documented and the consequences of this legacy are felt across all communities.

Dangerous work

Asbestos is still in place in many buildings, including factories, offices, hospitals and schools This results in continuing occupational exposure for construction, maintenance and demolition workers if adequate precautions are not taken to identify and deal with asbestos.

People using or living in buildings may be at risk if asbestos is poorly maintained.


3D - Question Mark (II)3D - Question Mark (II)Answers from the Health & Safety Executive:

Asbestos: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’S)

Health Risks; Employers & Employees; Control of Asbestos Regulations &  Members of the Public.

According to figures from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) there are over 2500 people per year in the UK diagnosed with mesothelioma (the most serious form of asbestos related cancer) and at least a further 2500 cases of lung cancer which are also likely to be caused by asbestos exposure.


From 1967 – 2014 more than 54,000 people in the UK have died from mesothelioma. More than 8,000 (14.8%) of whom were female.

From 1990 – 2014 more than 4,500 scots were diagnosed with mesothelioma. 632 (14.04%) of whom were female.



Figure1: DATA SOURCE: Department for Work and Pensions. Graph Illustration by CAA for informational purposes.


Asbestos-related disease Statistics




Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that takes many years to develop following the inhalation of asbestos fibres, but is usually rapidly fatal following disease onset. Annual deaths in Britain increased steeply over the last 50 years, a consequence of mainly occupational asbestos exposures that occurred because of the widespread industrial use of asbestos during 1950-1980.


2,515 mesothelioma deaths in Great Britain in 2014

The latest information shows:

  • There were 2,515 mesothelioma deaths in Great Britain in 2014, a similar number to the 2,556 deaths in 2013, and 2,549 deaths in 2012.
  • The latest projections suggest that there will continue to be around 2,500 deaths per year for the rest of this current decade before annual numbers begin to decline.
  • The continuing increase in annual mesothelioma deaths in recent years has been driven mainly by deaths among those aged 75 and above.
  • In 2014 there were 2,101 male deaths and 414 female deaths.
  • There were 2,215 new cases of mesothelioma assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB) in 2014 compared with 2,145 in 2013.
  • Men who worked in the building industry when asbestos was used extensively are now among those most at risk of mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma in Great Britain: annual deaths, IIDB cases and projected future deaths to 2030.

Mesothelioma in Great Britain: annual deaths, IIDB cases and projected future deaths to 2030


Asbestos-related lung cancer


The overall scale of asbestos-related lung cancer deaths has to be estimated rather than counted. This is because asbestos is one of a number of factors, including smoking, that can cause lung cancer. Individual cases usually have no specific clinical signs suggesting a particular cause, and factors such as asbestos exposure and smoking often act together to increase the risk.

  • Research suggests there are probably about as many asbestos-related lung cancer deaths each year as there are mesothelioma deaths.
  • This implies there are currently in excess of 2,000 lung cancer deaths each year in Great Britain that can be attributed to past asbestos-exposure.
  • This estimate is uncertain, and since asbestos and smoking act together to increase the risk, it is affected by past smoking habits as well as asbestos exposure.
  • The ratio of lung cancers to mesotheliomas is expected to fall over time suggesting less than one asbestos-related lung cancer per mesothelioma in the future.
  • There were 285 cases assessed for disablement benefit in 2014. (IIDB).
  • There were an estimated 96 cases of occupational lung cancer reported by chest physicians in 2014. (THOR).
  • The much lower number of cases identified via IIDB and THOR highlight the difficulty in attributing individual cases to asbestos exposure.


  • IIDB05 Excel spreadsheet – Prescribed industrial diseases of the lungs and new cases of assessed disablement by disease
  • THORR01 Excel spreadsheet – Numbers by sex and diagnostic category, 1998 to latest year

Scientific publications on asbestos-related lung cancer by HSE:

  • Darnton AJ, McElvenny D M, Hodgson JT(2005). Estimating the number of asbestos related lung cancer deaths in Great Britain from 1980-2000. Annals of Occupational Hygiene 50(1): 29-38.




Deaths from asbestosis (a form of pneumoconiosis caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres) continue to increase in Great Britain, a legacy of heavy exposures to asbestos in the past.

The latest information shows:

  • In 2013 there were 516 deaths where asbestosis is likely to have contributed as a cause compared with 109 in 1978. (Asbestosis register).
  • There were 217 deaths in 2013 where asbestosis was specifically recorded as the underlying cause of death. (Asbestosis register).
  • There were 985 newly assessed cases for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit in 2014. (IIDB).
  • Annual numbers of newly assessed cases have fluctuated in recent years.

Asbestosis deaths and disablement benefit cases 1978-2014

Asbestosis deaths and disablement benefit cases 1978-2011


Non-malignant pleural disease


Non-malignant pleural disease is a non cancerous condition affecting the outer lining of the lung (the pleura). It includes two forms of disease: diffuse pleural thickening and the less serious pleural plaques. A substantial number of cases continue to occur each year in Great Britain, mainly due to workplace asbestos exposures many years ago.

The latest information shows:

  • There were 425 new cases of pleural thickening assessed for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit in 2014 (IIDB).
  • The annual number has been fairly constant over the last 10 years, with an average of around 430 new cases per year (IIDB).
  • An estimated 580 new cases of non-malignant pleural disease mainly caused by asbestos were reported by chest physicians in 2014. A substantial proportion of these were cases of pleural plaques (THOR).
  • Pleural plaques are usually symptomless and are often identified in the THOR scheme when individuals have chest x-rays for other conditions.
  • For these reasons, there are likely to be substantially more individuals in the population with pleural plaques than those identified by chest physicians.



  • IIDB05 Excel spreadsheet – Prescribed industrial diseases of the lungs and new cases of assessed disablement by disease
  • THORR01 Excel spreadsheet – Numbers by sex and diagnostic category, 1998 to latest year


Other Conditions


There is some evidence to suggest that asbestos can also cause laryngeal cancer and may be implicated in causing pharyngeal, stomach and colorectal cancer…and conceivably a wide range of others. Asbestos: Effects on health of exposure to asbestos. Richard Doll and Julian Peto. HSE. 1985.pdf

All types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis. World Health Organisation.

Across Europe 10 asbestos-related cancers are recognised; in the UK only two, lung cancer and mesothelioma, are prescribed. And it seems IIAC is content to see workers with eight of the 10 asbestos related cancers continue to miss out.

Each year around 13,000 deaths from occupational lung disease and cancer are estimated to have been caused by past exposure, primarily to chemicals and dusts, at work (this estimate includes mesothelioma deaths)

Currently, the UK Government advisory body the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC)  lists only the following ‘prescribed’ diseases for the purposes of claiming Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit & State Compensation

List of prescribed diseases;

  • D1 – Asbestosis
  • D3 – Mesothelioma
  • D8 – Primary carcinoma of the lung where there is accompanying evidence of asbestosis
  • D8A– Primary carcinoma of the lung
  • D9 – Diffuse Pleural Thickening

Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) and Asbestos – related Diseases Reports & Position Papers:

Asbestos in Schools:

HSE: Annual Workplace Fatalities UK (excluding disease) 2016

GOV.UK:  Publications: FOI 

Contains public sector information published by the Health and Safety Executive and licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

Last updated: April 2017