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Cancer wonder drug welcomed

But prevention still key on asbestos

Date posted
23 February 2024
Jeremy Waterfield
Estimated reading time
3 minute read

While sharing the world’s excitement at the news scientists have developed an effective drug to treat mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer caused mainly by exposure to asbestos at work, a senior IOSH figure has still stressed the need for prevention ahead of cure.

Thousands of people globally are diagnosed every year with this deadly cancer, due to asbestos exposure many years beforehand. It tends to attack the lungs and has one of the world’s worst cancer rates. Successful trials of a new drug, ADI-PEG20, have seen patients taking it with chemotherapy gain on average an extra three years of life.

Yet, while joining the scientists in seeing a “truly wonderful” breakthrough for those who have mesothelioma, their families and supporters, IOSH Head of Policy and Public Affairs Ruth Wilkinson urges us not to forget this is a preventable disease, doubling down on the need to take a preventative approach to health and safety in the workplace, where employers, workers and occupational health and safety professionals work to avoid exposure to asbestos fibres in the first place.

Realising asbestos exists in many millions of buildings worldwide, posing a latent yet severe threat to people’s health, Ruth calls on building owners and landlords, and all those responsible for, and involved in, buildings management, construction, maintenance and repair, including contractor management, to continue to protect people from the risks of exposure to asbestos and to comply with their duty to manage asbestos in buildings.

“While asbestos has been banned in many countries, including the UK, since the turn of the century, it remains a global challenge to both occupational and public health, and poses a present and future threat to people’s lives and livelihoods,” she said.

“An estimated 233,000 occupational cancer deaths are caused by asbestos, the biggest cause of occupational cancer. Asbestos use has left a hazardous legacy in millions of buildings and in unmanaged situations, or where there is a lack of awareness and understanding of how to manage asbestos safely, people and workers in particular, will continue to be exposed to it. Exposure occurs where asbestos containing materials are damaged or disturbed, and fibres are released into the air and breathing space.

“Where asbestos is well managed – with the right surveys, assessments, registers, management plans, communication, cooperation, training, awareness, information and competency in place - the risk reduces."

This is why it’s vital we continue to raise awareness of what asbestos is, especially with younger people, and where it can be found, as well as how to protect tradespeople, property owners and property users from being exposed to it.

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Advice and guidance

Managers and employers are advised to use the plan, do, check, act (PDCA) health and safety management system method and follow its eight simple steps to avoid the accidental release of asbestos fibres.

Asbestos is the greatest single cause of UK work-related deaths, with past exposure causing around 5,000 annual deaths, including 2,542 mesothelioma deaths in 2015 and thousands of other asbestos-related deaths.

More than 740,000 people die every year worldwide from occupational cancers. IOSH offers comprehensive online guidance to help you and your organisation better understand the causes of occupational cancer and how to manage the risks.

Last updated: 29 February 2024

Jeremy Waterfield

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Content Officer


  • Health and wellbeing


  • asbestos
  • construction
  • health and social care