High Rates of Mesothelioma Remain Decades After Asbestos Ban in Italy

High Mesothelioma Rates in Fibronit, Italy

Although many countries currently ban or limit the use of asbestos, historical uses still affect people worldwide. Asbestos was used across a variety of industries in the 1900s. It was considered a desirable additive to many products because it enhances durability, particularly fire- and heat-resistance. The dangers of asbestos were well-known by the 1960s, but many companies continued to manufacture products with the mineral.

Despite bans in countries such as Italy and the United Kingdom, thousands of individuals are still impacted by past asbestos sites and diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases today. Broni, a small town in Northwest Italy, was the location of the second-largest Italian asbestos cement factory from 1932 to 1993. Experts conducted a study to determine the impact of the asbestos factory on Broni and a neighboring town. Despite Italy banning asbestos in 1993, a new study shows instances of malignant mesothelioma are still high in Broni and its neighboring town.

Asbestos Cement Factory’s Impact on Mesothelioma Cases

Broni, a province of Pavia, Lombardy in Italy, has approximately 9,000 citizens. The town is most well-known for Fibronit, which was the second-largest asbestos cement factory in the country. In the 1960s, when asbestos was at peak use, the factory produced up to 100,000 tons of asbestos cement products annually. Although the factory was in operation from 1932 to 1993, experts determined its effects are widespread. The impacts have lasted even after the factory closed its doors. As a result, the Italian government lists the factory as an environmentally-contaminated site.

Using the latest data, researchers sought to better understand the asbestos factory’s impact on public health. Researchers collected data from the Lombardy Mesothelioma Registry, a population-based registry that documents cases of mesothelioma at the time of diagnosis. The data included cases from across the greater region of Lombardy, Italy. Researchers examined malignant mesothelioma cases from 2000 to 2016.

The study indicated past asbestos use still impacted Broni, as well as the neighboring town of Stradella. Its impact also extended significantly beyond factory workers. There were 211 malignant mesothelioma cases reported in the 17-year sample period. During this time, researchers only expected approximately 17 incidences. There were about 194 more cases than expected.

Researchers further broke down the cases by types of exposure from the factory and found:

  • Occupational exposure was more prominent in males
  • There were 49 occupational mesothelioma cases in men and seven in women
  • Familial or secondhand exposure was more prominent in women
  • There were 39 mesothelioma cases related to secondhand exposure, 29 of which were women
  • Environmental exposure caused 123 cases of mesothelioma
  • There were 38 men and 85 women diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma caused by environmental asbestos exposure

The cases of malignant mesothelioma included residents of Broni, Stradella and the greater Lombardy region.

Asbestos Exposure Sites Remain a Concern Internationally

Although the asbestos cement factory ceased activity associated with asbestos in 1993, research indicates the risks of asbestos exposure still remain decades later. The health risks associated with asbestos are a global concern.

In the United States, this is evidenced by the increase in asbestos-related disease in the city of Libby, Montana, where W.R. Grace operated an asbestos mine. The company’s predecessor, Zonolite, began mining for asbestos in the 1920s and continued until 1990.

Miners, their families and individuals local to Libby still experience the impacts of disturbed asbestos becoming airborne. In a 2020 study, researchers noted increased cases of asbestosis, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions. Further, the increased risks were seen among individuals who did not experience occupational exposure.

Researchers note similar instances for countries with and without asbestos bans. Through this study of Broni, researchers determined there will continue to be increased incidences of mesothelioma in former Fibronit factory workers, their families and residents of Broni and Stradella in the coming years. The elevated cases of asbestos-related diseases may be the result of the long latency period of the disease or continuing exposure. With 75% of cases attributed to familial or environmental exposure, researchers put an emphasis on the importance of closely examining the health risks of asbestos exposure on the community as a whole.

Image: “Capannone” by Gianfranco Degrandi