AN ASBESTOS expert has warned that the number of men dying from a lethal lung disease caused by exposure to the mineral is likely to triple over the next 30 years.

Robin Howie said official predictions had "vastly underestimated" the death toll from mesothelioma, an incurable cancer, because they fail to take account of future improvements in life expectancy.

Mr Howie, an Edinburgh-based occupational hygienist who advises on health and safety, said that the expected surge in people living into their 80s and older meant that increasing numbers of men would survive long enough to develop mesothelioma, whereas past generations tended to die earlier from other illnesses. The condition takes 42 years on average to develop after initial exposure.

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Mr Howie forecasts that between 2014 and 2049, there will be a total of 130,000 male mesothelioma deaths in Britain, compared to around 50,000 between 1969 and 2014.

Speaking at an asbestos conference in Glasgow yesterday, he said: “This is not going away. We are not even at the beginning of the end. And at some point, the government of the day are going to have to face it.”

Mr Howie's predictions are around double the official estimates of the Health and Safety Executive, which previously said it expected male mesothelioma cases to peak in 2016, before gradually dropping off. In total, the HSE predicts that mesothelioma will kill around 91,000 men between 1968 and 2050.

However, Mr Howie stresses that this has ignored the effect of the ageing population, which will drive incidence "through the roof".

In a paper presented at yesterday's conference, he wrote: "Given that men aged over 70 accounted for 72 per cent of male mesothelioma cases in 2013 the predicted increase of the number of men over that age over the next four decades suggests that mesothelioma numbers are going to continue to rise, and rise sharply, for many years ... It is relevant to appreciate that men in their 80s in 2030 would have been in their 20s in 1975 and could have worked with, or worked in the vicinity of others working with, materials such as asbestos insulating boards or asbestos insulation products."

Mr Howie added that cases of mesothelioma in women were also "heavily under-diagnosed", but that he expected to see an upsurge in diagnoses among nurses and teachers who had been exposed to airborne fibres in schools and hospitals built using asbestos.

Asbestos was long considered a "magic material" in the construction, shipbuilding and manufacture industries, where it was used for insulation and fire-proofing. The link with mesothelioma was first identified in Nazi Germany in 1943 but dismissed for decades. The UK finally outlawed the import and use of 'blue' and 'brown' asbestos in 1985, followed by 'white' asbestos in 1992, but Mr Howie said the public had been let down by the UK's failure to enforce an EU Carcinogen Directive that would have set strict limits for airborne asbestos.

He said air quality in schools should not exceed 100 asbestos fibres per cubic metre.

He added: "We need to define sensible limits and we need to stick to them, but it shouldn't be the taxpayers who foot the bill for failure. I would have the government officials responsible for enforcement paying compensation out of their own pension pots. That would give them the incentive to get the job done."