Over 3,000 people a year die of the disease in the UK and numbers are predicted to rise to 10,000 a year by 2020. Those infected are mainly builders, plumbers and shipyard workers, but teachers, children and nurses are believed to have been put at risk since asbestos was used in the construction of several schools and hospitals.
Families of those who work with asbestos can also be infected if asbestos particles are brought into the home on clothes. It can take up to 40 years for symptoms to show.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptoms include shortness of breath on exertion, a persistent cough, chest pain or tightening of the chest, nail abnormalities and thickening of the fingers and toes.
What is the treatment?
There is no cure for asbestos diseases, but, as severity depends on the length of exposure and amount of asbestos dust inhaled, early identification through chest x-ray can prevent further exposure and worsening of conditions.
People who develop mesothelioma have a particularly bad prognosis. Around 75% die within one year of diagnosis. Mesothelioma can take between 20 and 40 years to develop after exposure to asbestos dust.
Other cancers related to asbestos include lung cancer (worsened by cigarette smoking) and cancers of the oesophagus, stomach, colon and rectum.
People with pleural diseases can have their lungs drained at intervals to relieve the build-up of fluid.
Some people with asbestos diseases may need oxygen masks to help them breathe. Asbestosis, for example, leads to a thickening of the lower part of the lungs, making them less elastic and causing breathing problems.
Action to prevent infection
The UK Health and Safety Commission announced in August that white asbestos could be banned by next year except in circumstances where no alternative material can be found. Discussions are taking place between September and the end of the year. Brown and blue asbestos have already been banned.