A study by the University of Adelaide and the University of Oxford found that British and Australian naval personnel had a higher incidence of asbestos-related lung cancer than the rest of the armed forces due to asbestos exposure.
Data were collected from 30,085 United Kingdom and Australian workers who worked in the 50s and 60s, a time when asbestos-containing materials were present on British and Australian ships.
Three of the four cohorts were previously studied by the University of Adelaide and the UK Health Security Agency to identify the effects of radiation exposure from British nuclear testing; However, mesothelioma, a cancer strongly associated with asbestos exposure, was seen among naval personnel in all cohorts.
Dr Richie Gunn of the University of Adelaide and Dr Gerry Kendall of the University of Oxford were prompted by this finding to examine the dataset for lung cancer, which can also arise from asbestos exposure.
A fourth cohort was Australian veterans of the Korean War, studied by the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
We found that lung cancer rates were higher overall among Navy personnel than in the other armed services, and, given that smoking remains the leading cause of lung cancer, it is unlikely to be overexplained by higher smoking rates in the Navy.
Although actual measurements of airborne asbestos levels were not available, and difficult to estimate, we concluded that the higher lung cancer rates among sailors were likely due to onboard asbestos exposure.
This conclusion was reinforced by the death of sailors from asbestosis, a condition that is non-cancerous but nonetheless disabling and potentially fatal.”
Dr Richie Gunn, University of Adelaide
Researchers estimated that the proportion of lung cancers related to shipboard asbestos exposure was 27 percent among Australian sailors and 12 percent among British sailors.
While Australia has strict regulatory controls and bans on the importation of asbestos-containing materials, they still pose a risk to workers and some householders. The New South Wales Dust Disease Register recorded 142 cases of asbestosis and 111 asbestosis deaths in 2021–2022.
Dr. Gunn said the effects of asbestos exposure are being underestimated if mesothelioma and asbestosis, as well as lung cancer, are not considered.
“While it is true that smoking causes most lung cancer, other agents such as asbestos may contribute to the incidence of cancer in an exposed population,” he said.
“Furthermore, we know from other studies that the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure has an increased effect on lung cancer risk; this interactive effect would have contributed to the increased incidence of lung cancer.”
The discovery of a link between asbestos exposure and a higher incidence of lung cancer is a timely reminder of the need to protect against exposure to other harmful airborne dusts.
“Strict control measures are needed to protect workers exposed not only to asbestos but to other hazardous dusts, such as the engineered stone dust now installed in many kitchens,” Dr Gunn said.
Song, R.T. and Kendall, G.M. (2023). Asbestos-related cancer among naval personnel: findings from participants in the British nuclear tests 1952–1967. Scientific report. doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-44847-4.