Is Asbestos-Containing Beer Responsible for a 4-Fold Increase in Oesophagus Cancer Cases, in the UK?

In the past, brewery workers have successfully brought industrial disease claims against breweries for either directly exposing (primary exposure) or indirectly exposing (secondary exposure) them to asbestos in the course of their employment.[1]

Indeed, asbestos was widely used in industrial brewery facilities and machinery, and could be found in:

  • Thermal system insulation;
  • Vinyl asbestos floor tiles and countertops;
  • Wall and ceiling plaster;
  • Roofing shingles;
  • Bearing pads;
  • Brake pads;
  • Gaskets and valves in piping;
  • Expansion joints;
  • Sealants, glues and paper products;
  • Sprayed coatings and paint;
  • Fireproofing;
  • Asbestos Insulating Board (AIB); and
  • Lagging.[2]

However, perhaps most controversially, breweries historically used asbestos containing beer filters in sterile filtration processes, which may not only have put workers at risk, but also the general public.

Inhaled Exposure to Asbestos in Beer Filters (The Occupational Health Risk)

The first beer filters were paper-based and difficult to manage, but by 1880, brewing factories had begun using cotton filters, called ‘pulp cakes’. These were long-lasting, but lacked tensile strength and were inefficient.[3]

In the 20th century, ‘pulp cakes’ were evolved into asbestos-containing beer filters.

First described in 1914[4] and used for ‘many decades’, upgraded filters were made from cotton fibres mixed with asbestos (and cellulose). In the US, asbestos content was as high as 50%.[5]

At 4.5 mm thick, with a pore size of 5 to 20 mm,[6] asbestos beer filters relied on a process called ‘depth filtration’, by which sediment and harmful microorganisms were separated from brewing fluids, either by mechanical (microbes entrapped) or by adsorptive (microbes fixed by electrical charge) effect.

After knowledge of asbestos carcinogenicity trickled down to the brewing industry, existing filters were replaced with kieselguhr or perlite-based sheet filters.

Until then, breweries had typically used hundreds of asbestos filters, on a daily basis, and, since they were easily cleaned and reused, asbestos in the filters had the proclivity to become old and dry, at which point it was friable.[7] As such, it is possible that unprotected brewery workers, prior to the 1980’s, may have inhaled disturbed asbestos fibres.

Ingested Exposure to Asbestos in Beer Filters (The Public Health Risk)

In 1986, Dr. Rob Reed, of Brewing Research International (Surrey, UK), confessed that the risk of occupational disease might not be the only type of health risk connected to asbestos-containing beer filters:

‘Over the past ten years the Industry has become increasingly concerned about the health aspects of asbestos. While there is the possibility of asbestos fibres ending up in the filtered beer, the case for hazard to health from ingestion of asbestos is by no means proven. Even so, sensitivity to public concern and the more real hazard to operators handling the cloth, have caused many brewers to drop the use of asbestos’.[8]

Gauging asbestos levels present in the end-product, Biles & Emerson (1968) used electron microscopes to test 6 samples of commercially bottled and canned beers. They found what was believed to be chrysotile asbestos fibres, at an average rate of 5,000 fibres per pint.[9]

A couple of years later, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published data on asbestos in beer, reporting concentrations of 0.151 million fibres per litre (MFL) and 4.3 to 6.6 MFL,[10] as identified by Cunningham (1971).[11]

Putting these figures into perspective, the results of a survey of asbestos concentrations in raw and treated waters in the United Kingdom, conducted by Conway and Lacey (1984), indicated that most drinking water contained asbestos fibres in concentrations varying from ‘not detectable’ up to 1 MFL.[12]

Water-transporting cement pipes were the presumed sources of asbestos in the drinking water tested.

Increased Prevalence of Gullet Cancer Shows that Beer was Laced with Asbestos?

Earlier this month, experts at the Universities of Cambridge and Liverpool published an academic article in the Nature journal,[13] which implies that asbestos exposure through ingestion of contaminated beer, in the 1970’s, may be the cause of an unusual 4-fold increase in oesophageal adenocarcinoma over the past 50-years, in an unexplained male to female ratio of 4:1. [14]

The condition, which shares some molecular resemblance with pleural mesothelioma, is the 14th most common type of cancer, according to Cancer Research UK,[15] with 9,100 new cases diagnosed every year (25 cases per day). The mortality rate is high, killing around 8,000, annually, with 85 to 89-year-olds most likely to be affected.

On the basis that the oesophagus, or gullet, is the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach and that asbestos has been found in proximate sites at autopsy, it has been hypothesised that consumption of beer, laced with asbestos, is the underlying cause of the cancer spike.

Whilst the researchers point to asbestos-containing beer filters (discussed above) as the source of toxicants in beer sold to customers, they also divulge anecdotal evidence that pub landlords would, as a matter of ‘common’ practice, ‘cleanse’ impurities in leftover beer, called ‘slops’, by adding handfuls of asbestos after establishments closed. In this way, the product could be served to unsuspecting patrons on the following day without wastage.[16]

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[Source: Flickr – Tim Dobson (23 May 2009): ‘Beer’]

Dr Jonathan Rhodes, Professor of Medicine at the University of Liverpool, advised The Sun, that:

‘Asbestos from beer consumed before around 1980 seems a plausible factor’.[17]

Somewhat contravening this, Andy Tighe, of The British Beer and Pub Association, rationalised that asbestos was used to manufacture other food and drink products and not just beer:

‘It’s difficult to associate health impacts from any one potential source’.[18]

Nevertheless, if exposure was as frequent as is conjectured, for how long could ‘asbestos victims in waiting’[19] foreseeably be diagnosed with oesophageal adenocarcinoma?

Answering this question, the lead authors projected that:

‘Given … asbestos ingestion from beer should only affect people who had already reached adulthood by the late 1970s, then the epidemic of oesophageal adenocarcinoma, if related to asbestos ingestion from beer rather than occupational exposure, might resolve slightly earlier, perhaps by 2050, and should be reducing well before then’.

 

[1] ‘Mesothelioma claim following exposure to asbestos at Courage Brewery, Bristol’ (2017 Boyes Turner) <https://www.boyesturnerclaims.com/site/our-cases/mesothelioma-claim-following-exposure-asbestos-at-courage-brewer> accessed 14 November 2019.

[2] Van Gosen BS, The geology of asbestos in the United States and its practical applications. Environ Eng Geosci (2007) 13: 55-68. <http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.849.5925&rep=rep1&type=pdf> accessed 14 November 2019.  

[3] Stephanie Kidd, ‘Brewing Facilities’ (22 May 2019 Asbestos.net) <https://www.asbestos.net/occupations/work-sites/brewing-facilities/> accessed 14 November 2019.

[4] Hornsey IS, A history of beer and brewing. Royal Society of Chemistry. London. 2003, ISBN 978-0-85404-630-0, p676. <https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/A_History_of_Beer_and_Brewing.html?id=QqnvNsgas20C> accessed 15 November 2019.

[5] Tara Strand and Jennifer Lucarelli, ‘Asbestos Exposure and Brewing Companies’ (Mesothelioma.com) <https://www.mesothelioma.com/asbestos-exposure/jobsites/brewing-companies/> accessed 14 November 2019.

[6] Briggs DE, Brookes PA, Stevens R and Boulon CA, Brewing: Science and Practice (2004), at page 771 <https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=mROkAgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Brewing:+Science+and+Practice&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiVz_G7u-nlAhVyQhUIHWP3BckQ6AEINjAC#v=snippet&q=asbestos&f=false> accessed 14 November 2019.

[7] Managing and working with asbestos: Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 – Approved Code of Practice and Guidance (L143, 2nd edition) (2013 HSE) <http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/priced/l143.pdf> accessed 14 November 2019.

[8] Reed RJR, CENTENARY REVIEW ARTICLE BEER FILTRATION (Brewing Research Foundation, Nutfield, Redhill, Surrey RH14HY). J. Inst. Brew., September-October, 1986, Vol. 92, pp. 413-41 <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/j.2050-0416.1986.tb04433.x> accessed 14 November 2019.

[9] Biles B & Emerson TR, Examination of fibres in beer. Nature 219, 93–94 (1968) <https://www.nature.com/articles/219093a0> accessed 14 November 2019.

[10] Asbestos in Drinking-water: Background document for development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality (originally published in Guidelines for drinking-water quality, 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Health criteria and other supporting information. World Health Organization, Geneva, 1996) <https://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/dwq/asbestos.pdf> accessed 14 November 2019.

[11]  Cunningham HM and Pontefract RD, Asbestos fibres in beverages and drinking water.

Nature (London). 1971 Jul 30;232(5309):332-3. <https://www.nature.com/articles/232332a0> accessed 14 November 2019.

[12] Conway DM and Lacey RF, Asbestos in drinking water. Results of a survey. Medmenham,

Water Research Centre, 1984 (Technical Report TR202)

[13] Fitzgerald RC and Rhodes JM, Ingested asbestos in filtered beer, in addition to occupational exposure, as a causative factor in oesophageal adenocarcinoma. British Journal of Cancer Volume 120, pages 1099–1104 (2019) <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41416-019-0467-9.pdf> accessed 14 November 2019.

[14] Xie, S.-H. & Lagergren, J. The male predominance in esophageal adenocarcinoma. Clin. Gastro Hepatol. 14, 338–347 (2016).

[15] Oesophageal cancer statistics’ (Cancer Research UK) <https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/oesophageal-cancer> accessed 14 November 2019.

[16] Sam Corbishley, ‘Beer laced with asbestos from the 1970s could be behind rise in cancer’ (2 November 2019 The Metro) <https://metro.co.uk/2019/11/02/beer-laced-asbestos-1970s-behind-rise-cancer-11032329/> accessed 14 November 2019.

[17] Nick McDermott, ‘BEER FEAR Asbestos-laced beer from the 1970s blamed for a quadrupling of gullet cancer cases’ (1 November 2019 The Sun) <https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/10262528/asbestos-beer-gullet-cancer/> accessed 14 November 2019.

[18] Jemma Carr, ‘Beer laced with ASBESTOS from the 1970s is blamed for soaring throat cancer as cases QUADRUPLE over past 50 years - with 90% affecting men’ (2 November 2019 The Daily Mail) <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7642125/Beer-laced-ASBESTOS-1970s-blamed-throat-cancer-cases-QUADRUPLE.html> accessed 14 November 2019.

[19] Nunoo EK et al., Environmental Health Risk Assessment of Asbestos-Containing Materials in the Brewing Industry in Ghana. J Environ Res (2018) Vol.2: No.2:3 <http://www.imedpub.com/articles/environmental-health-risk-assessment-of-asbestoscontaining-materials-in-the-brewing-industry-in-ghana.pdf> accessed 14 November 2019.