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Mortality of a cohort of tin miners 1941-86.

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  • Research Article
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  • Medicine

Abstract

The mortality patterns of United Kingdom tin miners were examined in relation to calendar period and duration of underground work with particular attention to lung cancer and exposure to radon. Subjects were all men who had worked for at least one year between 1941 and 1984 at one of two United Kingdom tin mines and for whom a complete work history could be constructed from mine records. Standardised mortality ratios (SMRs) were calculated using national (England and Wales) rates. The pattern of SMRs in relation to potential explanatory variables was analysed using Poisson regression methods. Mortalities from lung cancer and silicosis (including silicotuberculosis) were significantly raised and showed a significant relation with duration of underground work (mortality from stomach cancer was raised in both underground and surface workers, but not significantly). Excess mortality from silica related disease declined steeply from 35% among workers first exposed before 1920 to 1% among those first exposed after 1950. Thirteen surface workers with known exposure to arsenic had high rates of lung and stomach cancer. The SMR for lung cancer showed a consistent pattern in relation to duration of underground exposure, rising from 83 (observed/expected = 8/9.6) for surface workers (without exposure to arsenic) to 447 (15/3.4) for workers with more than 30 years underground exposure. Examination of the SMR for lung cancer by total underground exposure, age, and time since last exposure gave rise to a model for the expression of risk which depends only on total exposure and time since exposure. The fitted model implies that the effect of exposure to radon in a given year has no effect on risk for 10 years, then rapidly rises to a maximum from which the excess risk then declines, halving every 4.3 years. There were no direct measurements of historic radon levels. A conservative estimate based on measurements taken since 1969 by the National Radiological Protection Board and the Mines and Quarries Inspectorate is that the annual dose to an underground worker was about 10 working level months (WLM). Given this assumption, the risk/exposure slope implied by the present data, and the model fitted to it, was somewhat lower than that given in the fourth Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionisation Radiation (BEIR IV) report (about 40% lower for lifetime exposures). The present data also imply different risks depending on the age at exposure, with relatively higher lifetime risks for exposure at older ages, and relatively lower risks for exposures at younger ages. In conclusion, there was a clear relation between exposure to radon and death from lung cancer. The relative risk of lung cancer due to exposure to radon was not constant in cessation of exposure. The lifetime excess risk of lung cancer implied by these data for 40 years exposure at the current statutory limit of four WLM a year starting at age 20, was about 8% (79 excess deaths per 1000 exposed), assuming average smoking habits among the exposed workers. Control of dust concentrations in the mines has substantially reduced--and may have eliminated--direct mortality from silica related disease.

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