07/08. tbl. 105. árg. 2019

Asbestos and its effects on health of Icelanders – review

Asbest og áhrif þess á heilsufar Íslendinga - yfirlitsgrein

Asbestos are crystallized silicate minerals that form fibers with different structures and characteristics. Asbestos fibers are very durable and can tolerate very high temperatures. Therefore it was common to use asbestos as a fire retardants, heat insulation and where high temperature is used. Asbestos has been banned in Iceland from 1983 but can still be found in large amounts in buildings, ships and hot water pipes. Large amounts of asbestos were imported in the years before the ban but diminished soon to almost nothing today. Needle or filamentous shaped dust is released when working with asbestos. It is this dust that is dangerous for health. The latent time from exposure to disease can be up to forty years. Asbestos reaches the lungs via inhalation and can cause asbestosis that is a form of lung fibrosis with slow progression. Asbestos can also cause benign pleural effusions, pleural plaques and diffuse pleural thickening. Asbestos is a carcinogen. Lung cancer is most common but asbestos is also a risk factor for cancers of other organs. Mesothelioma is most common in the pleura but can be seen in other membranes. The incidence of these tumors is high in Iceland and is still increasing among males. Of all the European countries mortality is highest in Iceland. It is important for physicians to include asbestos exposure in the differential diagnosis of lung diseases and when lung cancer is diagnosed.


Figure 1: Asbestimport to Iceland by years in tons

Figure 2: CT scan of the chest showing asbestos changes. Shown are calcified pleural plaques, pleural effusion and lung fibrosis.

Figure 3: CT scan of the chest. Shown are calcified pleural plaques

Figure 4: Needle bispsy from thickened pleura, composed of acellular, collagenrich fibrotic tissue that diffusely forms parallel bundles

Figure 5: CT scan of the chest showing enclosing irregular soft tissue thickening on the chest wall- and mediastinal pleura typical for mesothelioma.

Table I. Asbestos related diseases

Disease Organ Diagnosis
Asbestosis Lung interstitium Medical imaging, tissue sample
Benign pleural effusion Pleural cavity Fluid analysis, medical imaging
Pleural plaques/pleural thickening Parietal pleura Medical imaging
Mesothelioma of pleura Pleura Tissue sample
Lung cancer Lung tissue Tissue sample
Mesothelioma of peritoneum Peritoneum Medical imaging, tissue sample
Other cancers Various Tissue sample

Table II. Number of malignant mesothelioma cases in ten years periods by gender, annual incidence per million, and 95 % confidence interval (CI)



1965-1974 1975-1984 1985-1994 1995-2004 2005-2014
Males Number of cases 1 4 9 19 27

Incidence per million inhabitants 1,4 4,8 9,4 17,6 21,4

95% CI 0,1-7,1 1,5-11,6 4,6-17,2 10,9-26,9 14,4-30,7
Females Number of cases 2 0 3 4 7

Incidence per million inhabitants 2,9 - 3,1 3,7 5,6

95% CI 0,5-9,6 - 0,8-8,5 1,2-8,8 2,4-11,0

CI: confidence interval

Table III. Number of malignant mesothelioma cases and deaths by age categories, and gender



<50 50-59 60-69 70-79 >80 Samtals
Males Number of cases 3 8 16 20 13 60
Females Number of cases 2 1 4 5 4 16
Males Number deceased 1 5 7 18 11 42
Females Number deceased 0 0 4 4 2 10

Table IV. Number of incident cases of malignant mesothelioma in ten years periods, and relative risk (RR) and 95 % confidence intervals (CI) during 1965 to 2014 among men and women, first period is the reference



Number of cases Relative risk 95% CI
Males 1965-1974 1 Reference

1975-1984 4 3,34 0,37-29,84

1985-1994 9 6,53 0,83-51,57

1995-2004 19 12,24 1,64-91,39

2005-2014 27 14,90 2,03-109,7

Trend, p-value <,000

Females 1965-1974 2 Reference

1975-1984 0 -

1985-1994 3 1,07 0,18-6,43

1995-2004 4 1,26 0,23-6,89

2005-2014 7 1,92 0,40-9,22

Trend, p-value 0,11

CI: confidence interval

Table V

Country Age corrected mortality per million inhabitants for the years 1994 til 2010 in several European countries for mesothelioma and asbestosis (number of years that are foundation for incidence)*


Mesothelioma Asbestosis
Danmark 8.87 (13) 1.91 (13)
Finnland 8.96 (15) 2.39 (15)
France 7.74 (10) 0.79 (10)
Germany 7.04 (13) 0.71 (13)
Iceland 24.58 (13) 4.59 (2)
Netherlands 15.91 (15) 0.49 (15)
Norway 7.99 (15) 2.07 (15)
Sweden 7.65 (14) 0.60 (14)
England 18.36 (11) 1.16 (11)

*This table is a simplification of a table from reference 45











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