A Bitter Taste
Abuse Aware | February 2020
The adverse health issues caused by asbestos have been reported since the first UK death associated with asbestos was recorded in 1907. After more than a hundred years further risks are still being proposed.
A recent study in the British Journal for Cancer suggests that due to the filtration process asbestos fibres contaminated beer well into the 1970’s and could well be the cause of an increased incidence of oesophageal cancer. There has been nearly a six-fold increase in the incidence of oesophageal cancer in the last 50 years, particularly in Britain, with a gender bias of nearly 4 to 1 between men and women.
The use of asbestos within the brewery industry is not well known. It has been used in the filtration process to clear sediment from beer prior to bottling. The Journal of the Institute of Brewery (1914), said ‘To be successful in chilled beer bottling the filters and pulp are of the first importance…best beer asbestos should be added...the asbestos should be whisked up to a cream’. A 1968 study found as many as 5000 fibres per pint of beer.
The recent paper cites anecdotal evidence of asbestos being used into the 1970’s. It includes one reference to a former landlord who admitted to taking slops and using an asbestos filter before re-serving to unsuspecting punters. The study relies on this evidence to support the hypothesis that beer drinkers in the UK were exposed to asbestos simply by enjoying a few pints at the end of a working week. It is almost certain that this practice ended before 1980.
The paper suggests that this practice was higher in the UK than in other beer drinking countries and may partly explain the greater incidence of this cancer in males in the UK. A higher disease incidence in the UK and the Netherlands compared to France, Spain and Italy might also be related to higher levels of beer drinking.
The study argues that the biological changes in oesophageal cancer are similar to that of mesothelioma, although it accepts that many of these changes are also similar in other tumours.
The report concedes that there is no epidemiological evidence linking beer drinking to oesophageal cancer, and the scientific evidence linking asbestos to this type of cancer is very weak. However, the authors suggest that this is because the presence of asbestos in beer has never been considered. As things stand this study is simply a hypothesis to try to explain the increase in oesophageal cancer. Even if beer drinking is found to create a cancer risk it is hard to see how this could trigger an employer’s liability.