Asbestos-related cancer costs Canadians billions



A first-ever estimate of the toll of asbestos-related cancers on society pegs the cost of new cases at $1.7-billion per year in Canada, and notes that is likely an under-estimate.

The economic burden of lung cancer and mesothelioma from work-related asbestos exposure in Canada amounts to an average of $818,000 per case, according to a team led by health economist and senior scientist Dr. Emile Tompa at the Institute for Work & Health, a research organization, whose calculation includes costs related to health care and lost productivity and quality of life.

This is the first time a tally of these costs has been made public. Asbestos remains the top cause of occupational deaths in Canada: Workers’ compensation boards have accepted more than 5,700 claims since 1996. About 150,000 Canadian workers are exposed to asbestos in their workplaces, the research project Carex Canada estimates, among them construction workers and contractors, mechanics, shipbuilders and engineers. This country continues to allow exports and imports of asbestos, which rose to a six-year high last year. Dozens of other countries, including Australia and Britain, have banned it.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last month the federal government is “moving forward on a ban.” It is the first time since taking office that he has publicly talked about a potential ban, although he gave no timeline and it was not an official announcement.

“We are moving to ban asbestos,” he told a conference of building trades unions on May 10. “Its impact on workers far outweighs any benefits that it might provide.”

The economic burden numbers are based on newly diagnosed cases in 2011 that were attributable to occupational exposure. The calculation is based on the number of new cases of mesothelioma, a cancer associated almost exclusively with asbestos exposure, for that year, along with estimates on the numbers of new lung cancer cases caused by workplace asbestos. These totalled 2,099 in 2011.

The study noted that new cases are likely to grow in the near future due to long latency periods of these diseases and continued exposure. The key question the analysis sought to answer is what the savings to society would be if no cases of cancer attributable to occupational asbestos exposures occurred in a particular year.

The study looked at direct and indirect costs. Direct health-care costs are a just a fraction of the estimate. Health-care costs for mesothelioma are pegged at $46,000 per case, and for lung cancer at $28,000. “Often times, the health-care costs are very low because the fatality rates are extremely high following diagnosis. Most of these people don’t survive a year,” Dr. Tompa said.

Health-related quality of life, which includes morbidity (loss of function due to poor health), lost years of life and human suffering, is the biggest component, comprising 80 per cent of the costs. This is calculated by using a measure called quality adjusted life years. It compares morbidities and life expectancies of people with asbestos-related cancer to Canadian age- and gender-specific averages.

Asbestos-related cancer costs Canadians billions

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