A recent UBC study has suggested that a significant number of people are not being compensated for a rare workplace-related cancer linked to asbestos.
According to a paper posted on the UBC Centre for Health Services and Policy Research website, more than 80 percent of mesothelioma cases can be traced back to the workplace. Symptoms of this often-fatal illness commonly appear 30 to 40 years after exposure.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute defines mesothelioma as “a rare form of cancer in which malignant (cancerous) cells are found in the mesothelium, a protective sac that covers most of the body’s internal organs”. Cancerous cells invade nearby tissues and organs or spread to other parts of the body, though most cases begin in the lining of the lung or abdominal cavities.
UBC researchers Tracy Kirkham, Mieke Koehoorn, Christopher McLeod, and Paul Demers declared in “Mesothelioma awareness and compensation in B.C.” that WorkSafeBC compensated fewer than half of all mesothelioma cases in the province over a 35-year period. They based their research on B.C. Cancer Agency records of mesothelioma tumours between 1970 and 2005, as well as on WorkSafeBC records.
“This suggests that clinicians and workers may not be aware that mesothelioma is a work-related disease, and that they may be eligible for compensation,” the researchers wrote.
They pointed out that the disease has a “single, well-established cause: exposure to asbestos or related materials”. Even though asbestos use and production peaked in Canada in the mid 1970s and then tailed off, the number of mesothelioma cases in B.C. is still rising. That’s because of the long period of time between exposure and development of the disease.
“Women, the elderly, and those living in urban areas are the least likely to receive compensation,” the UBC researchers noted in their paper. “Compensation rates also vary by region of the province, and these results suggest that public knowledge in large industrial settings with known asbestos exposures may influence awareness of compensation benefits.”
The researchers wrote that they hope their study helps public-health agencies and regulators develop systems to encourage people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma seek compensation. “In 2005, the BCCA and WorkSafeBC launched an intervention to increase awareness of workers’ compensation benefits among mesothelioma patients,” the researchers stated. “Physicians of patients in the cancer registry were mailed a letter asking them to provide information to their patients about the work-relatedness of mesothelioma, and to encourage them to ask about workers’ compensation benefits.”
A second phase of the study is evaluating the effects of physicians’ letters to patients on overall claim rates.
The UBC research was originally published online in late September in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine under the title “Surveillance of mesothelioma and workers’ compensation in British Columbia, Canada”.
Workers are still exposed to asbestos in the mining and construction industries, according to a paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2008.
“The number of Canadian men who receive a diagnosis of mesothelioma each year has been steadily increasing over the past 20 years, from 153 cases in 1984 to 344 cases in 2003,” the CMAJ paper reported. “The number of cases is likely underestimated owing to diagnostic, coding and registration challenges specific to mesothelioma.”
Asbestos also causes lung cancer, and there are about two cases of asbestos-linked lung cancer for each case of mesothelioma, according to the CMAJ paper. “Recently, the Institute of Medicine in the United States concluded that asbestos is a risk factor for laryngeal cancer and that asbestos may increase the risk of pharynx, stomach and colorectal cancers,” it noted. “Thus, the true burden of asbestos-related cancer extends beyond mesothelioma.”
Moreover, cases of mesothelioma are occurring across the country and are not restricted to certain provinces. In 2003, 18 percent of new diagnoses involved women. “Family members of people who work with asbestos and people exposed to asbestos-containing products in the home or who live close to asbestos facilities are at increased risk for mesothelioma,” the CMAJ paper stated.
Canada has come under fire from public-health researchers, including the authors of the CMAJ study, for exporting asbestos to developing countries, where there aren’t sufficient controls over its safe use. A website called Asbestos.com, which bills itself as the leading mesothelioma cancer resource, reported last May that the Canadian asbestos industry is waiting to see if the Quebec government will finance a new mine in the town of Asbestos. This would enable the mineral to be distributed for another 30 years.
Asbestos.com also reported that more than 50 Quebec doctors, scientists, and environmental activists have signed a position paper calling for a provincial ban on mining and exporting the product. In June, the Canadian Cancer Agency jumped into the debate, urging the Quebec government not to provide a $58-million loan guarantee to Jeffrey Asbestos Mines for the renewal of asbestos mining and export. A week later, the town of Asbestos cancelled its annual fundraising walk for cancer.