This paper draws together the mortality experience for a cohort of some 11000 male Quebec Chrysotile miners and millers, reported at intervals since 1971 and now again updated. Of the 10918 men in the complete cohort, 1138 were lost to view, almost all never traced after employment of only a month or two before 1935; the other 9780 men were traced into 1992. Of these, 8009 (82%) are known to have died: 657 from lung cancer, 38 from mesotheliona, 1205 from other malignant disease, 108 from pneumoconiosis and 561 from other non-malignant respiratory diseases (excluding tuberculosis). After early fluctuations. SMRs (all causes) against Quebec rates have been reasonably steady since about 1945. For men first employed in Asbestos, mine or factory, they were very much what might have been expected for a blue collar population without any hazardous exposure. SMRs in the Thetford Mines area were almost 8% higher, but in line with anecdotal evidence concerning socio-economic status. At exposures below 300 (million particles per cubic foot) x years, (mpcf.y), equivalent to roughly 1000 (fibres/ml) x years-or, say, 10 years in the 1940s at 80 (fibres/ml)-findings were as follows. There were no discernible associations of degree of exposure and SMRs, whether for all causes of death or for all the specific cancer sites examined. The average SMRs were 1.07 (all causes), and 1.16, 0.93, 1.03 and 1.21, respectively, for gastric, other abdominal, laryngeal and lung cancer. Men whose exposures were less then 300 mpcf.y suffered almost one-half of the 146 deaths from pneumoconiosis or mesothelioma; the elimination of these two causes would have reduced these men's SMR (all causes) from 1.07 to approximately 1.06. Thus it is concluded from the viewpoint of mortality that exposure in this industry to less than 300 mpcf.y has been essentially innocuous, although there was a small risk or pneumoconiosis or mesothelioma. Higher exposures have, however, led to excesses, increasing with degree of exposure, of mortality from all causes, and from lung cancer and stomach cancer, but such exposures, of at least 300 mpcf.y, are several orders of magnitude more severe than any that have been seen for many years. The effects of cigarette smoking were much more deleterious than those of dust exposure, not only for lung cancer (the SMR for smokers of 20+ cigarettes a day being 4.6 times higher than that for non-smokers), but also for stomach cancer (2.0 times higher), laryngeal cancer (2.9 times higher), and-most importantly-for all causes (1.6 times higher).
Comment In: Ann Occup Hyg. 1997 Jan;41(1):3-129072948
Comment In: Ann Occup Hyg. 2001 Jun;45(4):329-35; author reply 336-811414250
A cohort of some 11,000 men born 1891-1920 and employed for at least one month in the chrysotile mines and mills of Quebec, was established in 1966 and has been followed ever since. Of the 5351 men surviving into 1976, only 16 could not be traced; 2508 were still alive in 1989, and 2827 had died; by the end of 1992 a further 698 were known to have died, giving an overall mortality of almost 80%. This paper presents the results of analysis of mortality for the period 1976 to 1988 inclusive, obtained by the subject-years method, with Quebec mortality for reference. In many respects the standardised mortality ratios (SMRs) 20 years or more after first employment were similar to those for the period 1951-75--namely, all causes 1.07 (1951-75, 1.09); heart disease 1.02 (1.04); cerebrovascular disease 1.06 (1.07); external causes 1.17 (1.17). The SMR for lung cancer, however, rose from 1.25 to 1.39 and deaths from mesothelioma increased from eight (10 before review) to 25; deaths from respiratory tuberculosis fell from 57 to five. Among men whose exposure by age 55 was at least 300 million particles per cubic foot x years (mpcf.y), the SMR (all causes) was elevated in the two main mining regions, Asbestos and Thetford Mines, and for the small factory in Asbestos; so were the SMRs for lung cancer, ischaemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and respiratory disease other than pneumoconiosis. Except for lung cancer, however, there was little convincing evidence of gradients over four classes of exposure, divided at 30, 100, and 300 mpcf.y. Over seven narrower categories of exposure up to 300 mpcf.y the SMR for lung cancer fluctuated around 1.27 with no indication of trend, but increased steeply above that level. Mortality form pneumoconiosis was strongly related to exposure, and the trend for mesothelioma was not dissimilar. Mortality generally was related systematically to cigarette smoking habit, recorded in life from 99% of survivors into 1976; smokers of 20 or more cigarettes a day had the highest SMRs not only for lung cancer but also for all causes, cancer of the stomach, pancreas, and larynx, and ischaemic heart disease. For lung cancer SMRs increased fivefold with smoking, but the increase with dust exposure was comparatively slight for non-smokers, lower again for ex-smokers, and negligible for smokers of at least 20 cigarettes a day; thus the asbestos-smoking interaction was less than multiplicative. Of the 33 deaths from mesothelioma in the cohort to date, 28 were in miners and millers and five were in employees of a small asbestos products factory where commercial amphiboles had also been used. Preliminary analysis also suggest that the risk of mesothelioma was higher in the mines and mills at Thetford Mines than in those at Asbestos. More detailed studies of these differences and of exposure-response relations for lung cancer are under way.
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Canadian chrysotile (white asbestos) could be a paradigm for those agents that are successfully exploited commercially long after they have been found to be lethal. Mining started in the late 1870s, and reports of disability and death followed in Britain (1898), in France (1906), and Italy (1908), but it was not until 1955 that Canada acknowledged asbestosis in its asbestos miners and millers. Even when shortly after asbestos was shown to be carcinogenic, Canadian Public Relations experts assisted by their scientists exculpated chrysotile by deeming other agents to have been causal.
The PR techniques that have been successfully used in the defense of chrysotile are reviewed, to forewarn scientists involved in formulating public health policy for similar agents, as to the tricks that will be played on them.
Primary prevention carried out today can reduce the disease incidence in the future decades. The present disease panorama is the consequence of past asbestos exposure mainly before the 1970s. The peak incidence of asbestos-induced diseases will be reached around 2010 in Finland. The number of asbestos-related premature deaths is at present annually about 150 which exceeds the figure of fatal work accidents. Asbestos-related cancer will increase still for 15-20 years and reach its maximum, about 300 cases, in 2010, and will start to decrease after that. More than 20,000 asbestos-exposed workers have participated in the medical screening and follow-up. The termination of exposure, antismoking campaigns, improved diagnostics and careful attention to compensation issues, as well as other potentials for prevention, were the central issue of the Asbestos Program of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. An important objective of research work is to improve early diagnostics, and thereby treatment prospects, in case of asbestos-induced cancers.
Samples of raw, treated and distributed tap water were collected from 71 municipalities across Canada and analyzed for asbestos content by transmission electron microscopy. Chrysotile asbestos was identified as the major asbestos type present in drinking water with some 5% of public water supplies containing asbestos at concentrations greater than 10 million fibres per litre. Improvement factors of up to 300 were observed for the removal of chrysotile fibres from drinking water during treatment, indicating that coagulation/filtration treatment is efficient for this purpose. In certain cases there is evidence to suggest that erosion of asbestos from pipe material is taking place. Age-standardized mortality rates for gastro-intestinal cancers were calculated for each city for the period of 1966 to 1976. Rates for the 2 localities with the highest (congruent to 10(8)/L) concentrations of asbestos fibres in treated drinking water were compared with the weighted average of the rates for the 52 localities with asbestos concentrations not significantly greater than zero. Eleven localities had intermediate concentrations of asbestos and six were too small for meaningful statistical analysis. Relatively high mortality rates were apparent amongst males in city 1 for cancer of the large intestine except rectum, and in both sexes in city 1 and males in city 2 for stomach cancer. It is felt that these findings are probably related to occupational exposure to asbestos. Further statistical analyses are required, however, before the significance of these observations can be fully assessed.
One prospective epidemiologic study of asbestos cement workers with radiological small opacities has been cited as a rationale for attributing excess lung cancer to asbestosis. This approach could have considerable practical value for disease attribution in an era of decreasing exposure. However, a recent International Agency for Research on Cancer review concludes that the mechanism of production of asbestos-related lung cancer are unknown. Asbestosis, therefore, cannot be a biologically effective dose marker of lung cancer susceptibility. Asbestosis nonetheless would be useful in identifying asbestos-attributable lung cancer cases if it could be proven an infallible exposure indicator. In this study, we tested this hypothesis in the chrysotile miners and millers of Quebec, Canada. We examined exposure histories, autopsy records, and lung fiber content for 111 Quebec chrysotile miners and millers. If the hypothesis of an asbestosis requirement for lung cancer attribution were accurate, we would expect as asbestosis diagnosis to separate those with lung cancer and high levels of exposure from those with lower levels of exposure in a specific and sensitive manner. This is the first such study in which historical job-based individual estimates based on environmental measurements, lung fiber content, exposure timing, and complete pathology records including autopsies were available for review. We found significant excesses of lung tremolite and chrysotile and estimated cumulative exposure in those with lung cancer and asbestosis compared to those with lung cancer without asbestosis. However, when the latter were directly compared on a case-by-case basis, there was a marked overlap between lung cancer cases with and without asbestosis regardless of the measure of exposure. Smoking habits did not differ between lung cancer cases with and without asbestosis. In regression models, smoking pack-years discriminated between those with the without lung cancer, regardless of asbestosis status. Most seriously, the pathologic diagnosis of asbestosis itself seemed arbitrary in many cases. We conclude that although the presence of pathologically diagnosed asbestosis is a useful marker of exposure, the absence of this disease must be regarded as one of many factors in determining individual exposure status and disease causation.
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For several years now, public health professionals have been faced with evaluating the potential hazards associated with the ingestion of asbestos in food and drinking water. In Canada, this is a subject of particular concern, because of the widespread occurrence of chrysotile asbestos in drinking water supplies. The results of available Canadian monitoring and epidemiologic studies of asbestos in drinking water are reviewed and discussed in light of other published work. It is concluded that the risk to health associated with the ingestion of asbestos, at the levels found in municipal drinking water supplies, is so small that it cannot be detected by currently available epidemiologic techniques.
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In September 2000, a World Trade Organization (WTO) panel published its findings in the dispute between Canada and the European Union/France over France's ban on the import and use of chrysotile (white asbestos). The panel upheld the French ban, established that the use of chrysotile is a health risk and the idea of "controlled use" a fallacy, and used (for the first time) an exception clause in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that permits trade-restrictive measures to protect human life or health. At the same time, the panel concluded that the French ban violated international trade laws by treating chrysotile products less favorably than domestically produced alternatives. Some WTO watchers believe that with asbestos as the precedent for bans on toxic substances, the regulation of other, much less well-established, toxic exposures could prove much more difficult. Now the French ban has been upheld, chrysotile producers will increasingly target developing countries. Canada is appealing the WTO decision.