Mesothelioma is a rare cancer. However, it still claims thousands of Americans’ lives every year. The American Cancer Society reports that we see roughly 3,000 new mesothelioma diagnoses each year. But how does that number compare to the number of cases outside the United States?
Nearly all mesothelioma stems from exposure to asbestos. And while many countries have now banned its use, people mined and used asbestos all across the globe. Exploring the ties between asbestos and mesothelioma in those countries may help us better understand the disease here at home.
Mesothelioma is a global problem
An older study published by the World Health Organization (WHO) suggested mesothelioma killed roughly 43,800 people each year. There are many factors that make it difficult to reach a good estimate. These include the lack of quality data. However, Occupational & Environmental Medicine (OEM) published a later study that aimed at a better picture of the problem.
This later study found the WHO’s figure fit right in the middle of several estimates. These ranged from a low of 32,400 global deaths annually to a high of 59,000. The study noted the great disparity between estimates, but it also noted the numbers reinforce the fact that asbestos exposure is a global health hazard.
Comparing the United States to other nations
In addition to noting the global death rates, the WHO and OEM reports offered a look at how mesothelioma affects many different nations. Remarkably, these two reports show:
- The United States has one of the highest death rates and total number of deaths
- Europe, specifically western Europe, leads the world in cases, and the Americas are second
- Global trends reflect a consistent increase in mesothelioma death rates as people age
- The mesothelioma death rate is highest for people ages 80 to 84
- The peritoneal mesothelioma death rate peaks earlier, at ages 75-79
- Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases appear more common in richer nations
This last point is worth a second look. This flips the script on most health issues. We tend to expect that richer nations can afford better health care, and people should live longer. However, the data suggest that people in the United States and other richer nations actually suffer more from mesothelioma. In fact, the study found that 88% of all mesothelioma deaths took place in high-income nations. Another 12% took place in middle-income nations. The study found no mesothelioma in low-income nations.
This may owe to the poor quality of reporting from low-income nations, but there’s likely another factor. Notably, the study also found a link between increased mesothelioma and northern regions. This suggests that mesothelioma rates increase in the areas that could afford more construction during the height of asbestos and that were more likely to use asbestos materials for purposes like insulation.
What do these numbers tell us?
While mesothelioma rates have fallen in the United States since their peak in the early 1990s, the data suggests a strong link between the cancer and increased asbestos use. The more that companies made products with asbestos, and the more builders used those products, the more they exposed the nation to a deadly carcinogen.
Fortunately, the slight drop in mesothelioma rates the nation has seen in recent years is a reminder that the disease is preventable. The United States is not yet among the nations that have passed full asbestos bans, but the partial bans have helped. The more we move away from asbestos use, the better off we are.