Specialists warn of “massive increase” in Portugal’s asbestos-related cancers

A lung specialist with Portugal’s prestigious Champalimaud Foundation has sounded the alert over a “massive” increase in the number of asbestos-related cancers throughout the country- stressing that anyone who has been exposed to the material should submit themselves for medical testing as soon as possible.

Though “highly aggressive”, mesothelioma tumours linked to asbestos exposure can be caught in their early stages, pulmonologist José Cruz told his audience.

“If we manage to diagnose and operate on patients in a less advanced phase, we can significantly alter their chances of survival,” he said, stressing that “three or four years ago, I rarely got a mesothelioma to operate on. Now I get about one a month”.

Tests, particularly CAT scans, are the best way people who think they may have been exposed to asbestos can get themselves checked, Cruz told the seminar organised by environmental NGO Quercus.
His warning follows in the wake of the ‘asbestos scare’ that caused an outcry from one end of Portugal to the other last year.

Newspapers splashed “asbestos horror” stories across their pages, highlighting the case of the government building in Lisbon where 19 employees – a quarter of the workforce – had become ill with a variety of cancers after being exposed to the now banned-building material. Nine went on to die.

Elsewhere, up and down the country, schools, sports centres and public buildings all bear witness to the prevalence of asbestos in everyday life.

Estimates vary, but there is no doubt that it can be found “across hundreds of hectares” throughout the country.

The ‘scare’ forced the government’s hand to draw up a list of all the public buildings that had asbestos in their make-up last summer – but it is still extremely unlikely that an EU ruling that demands countries remove asbestos from buildings by 2032 will be met.

“At the rate work is going, the 2032 deadline will be extremely difficult”, the NGO’s João Branco told reporters.

Meantime, the number of asbestos-related cancers worldwide is set to skyrocket.

In a special report entitled “Asbestos in the World”, researchers pointed to as many as 500,000 deaths by 2030 alone.

The problem with mesothelioma tumours is that they can take between 20-40 years to become apparent.

As national health institute researcher Maria Neto told reporters some months ago: “The consequences of exposure are only now being known”.

Jorge Cruz’s presentation has since added extra chilling detail – and as Neto explained, huge quantities of asbestos in Portugal “cannot even be seen. There are tubes, refrigeration and insulation systems, where no one knows that it even exists”.

The public health dangers posed by asbestos began being known in the 1920s, but it was not until this century that governments started to act with outright bans.

Even so, Wikipedia reports that “countries, such as India, Indonesia, China, Russia and Brazil, have continued widespread use of asbestos”.

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