Working with asbestos and the possible health risks

Occup Med (Lond). 2015 Jan;65(1):6-14. doi: 10.1093/occmed/kqu175.


Background: The generic term asbestos refers to a group of crystalline mineral silicates that occur naturally in various forms. Because of their properties of strength, heat and electrical resistance and their ability to withstand corrosion by acids and sea water, asbestos was used extensively both in the UK and worldwide.

Aims: To provide a historical perspective of this ubiquitous occupational hazard, consider the key changes in UK legislation aimed at improving the management of this occupational health risk and describe the evidence from the scientific literature concerning asbestos and disease.

Methods: Original articles, reviews (including reference textbooks) and scientific literature in PubMed and other principal medical science databases, 1960-2014, were searched. Publications by regulatory agencies and by governmental organizations were also considered and included where relevant.

Results: Asbestos remains the biggest cause of cancer deaths worldwide. For malignant mesothelioma deaths alone, it is estimated that in the UK, between 2015 and 2020, the number of cases will peak at 2500 cases annually. It is not clear whether there is a safe level of asbestos fibres in air. Evidence for the efficacy of health surveillance is lacking.

Conclusions: Although the use of asbestos was banned in the UK in 1985 (amosite and crocidolite) and 1999 (chrysotile), it remains a significant occupational risk factor for work-related morbidity and mortality, causing both benign and malignant diseases, often with long latency. Further research is needed regarding exposure levels and health surveillance.

Keywords: Asbestos; asbestosis; long latency; lung cancer; mesothelioma; screening..

MeSH terms

  • Asbestos / adverse effects*
  • Asbestosis / complications
  • Asbestosis / diagnosis
  • Asbestosis / epidemiology*
  • Health Status Indicators*
  • Humans
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects
  • Occupational Exposure / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Occupational Exposure / statistics & numerical data*
  • Occupations / trends
  • Work / standards
  • Work / statistics & numerical data
  • Work / trends


  • Asbestos