Asbestos and cancer: An overview of current trends in Europe

Environ Health Perspect. 1999 May;107 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):289-98. doi: 10.1289/ehp.99107s2289.


This review assesses the contribution of occupational asbestos exposure to the occurrence of mesothelioma and lung cancer in Europe. Available information on national asbestos consumption, proportions of the population exposed, and exposure levels is summarized. Population-based studies from various European regions on occupational asbestos exposure, mesothelioma, and lung cancer are reviewed. Asbestos consumption in 1994 ranged, per capita, between 0. 004 kg in northern Europe and 2.4 kg in the former Soviet Union. Population surveys from northern Europe indicate that 15 to 30% of the male (and a few percent of the female) population has ever had occupational exposure to asbestos, mainly in construction (75% in Finland) or in shipyards. Studies on mesothelioma combining occupational history with biologic exposure indices indicate occupational asbestos exposure in 62 to 85% of the cases. Population attributable risks for lung cancer among males range between 2 and 50% for definite asbestos exposure. After exclusion of the most extreme values because of methodologic aspects, most of the remaining estimates are within the range of 10 to 20%. Estimates of women are lower. Extrapolation of the results to national figures would decrease the estimates. Norwegian estimates indicate that one-third of expected asbestos-related lung cancers might be avoided if former asbestos workers quit smoking. The combination of a current high asbestos consumption per capita, high exposure levels, and high underlying lung cancer rates in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union suggests that the lung cancers will arise from the smoking-asbestos interaction should be a major concern.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Asbestos / adverse effects*
  • Asbestos / analysis
  • Carcinogens / adverse effects*
  • Carcinogens / analysis
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Epidemiological Monitoring
  • Europe / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Lung Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Lung Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Male
  • Mesothelioma / epidemiology*
  • Mesothelioma / etiology*
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Occupational Diseases / etiology*
  • Population Surveillance
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Distribution
  • Smoking / adverse effects


  • Carcinogens
  • Asbestos