Scientists at the University of Liverpool found out that the dramatic increase in the incidence of gullet cancer (oesophageal adenocarcinoma) over the past 50 years is likely related to ingested asbestos in filtered beer as it has been used in the 1970s in the UK and other countries. Oesophageal or gullet cancer is a type of cancer affecting the food pipe (oesophagus), the long tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach.
Asbestos was widely used to filter out impurities from beer and other alcoholic drinks until the 1980s. Concerns started to be raised in the 1970s about the possible health effects of asbestos in beverages but relatively few studies examined human intestinal samples directly for presence of asbestos.
Over the years gullet cancer has become much more common, especially in the UK, where every year more than 8,000 die of this cause. In the last 50 years this rate has risen six fold with an unexplained male to female ratio of more than 4 to1.
The two authors of the study, Jonathan M. Rhodes, Emeritus Professor of Medicine and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool and researcher Rebecca C. Fitzgerald, conclude that “it seems plausible that ingested asbestos fibers – particularly, but not solely, from beer consumed before 1980 - could be a significant factor in the epidemic of oesophageal adenocarcinoma that has particularly affected males in selected countries.”
However, the very long incubation period from initial asbestos exposure to tumor manifestation, typically several decades, has been taken to suggest that asbestos is acting as a tumor promoter rather than as an initiator.
Britain has the highest rate of mesothelioma (a type of cancer that develops from the thin layer of tissue that covers many of the internal organs) worldwide but almost all cases relate to exposure before 1980 when asbestos was widely used. Use of Crocidolite (also called Blue Asbestos) ended in 1970 and use of amosite (often referred to as brown asbestos) by the late 1970s. Thus, of 2542 deaths from mesothelioma in 2015, only three of the deceased were born after 1975, and it has been predicted that asbestos-related mesothelioma should have disappeared in Britain by 2055, by which time anyone born before 1965 will be over 90.
The study was already published in the British Journal of Cancer in May but there was no public attention until today when tabloid newspaper The Sun published a summary of the findings.