The northern coastal city of Nahariya and the surrounding area has one of the largest concentrations in the world of people with mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that is caused mostly by exposure to asbestos. Experts believe the number of cases will rise in the coming decades as individuals exposed to the substance age.

The information was presented yesterday at a conference at Petah Tikva's Rabin Medical Center by Dr. Micha Bar-Hana, director of the Health Ministry's cancer registry. Bar-Hana said the prevalence of the disease in the Acre District, which includes Nahariya, reached 5.72 per 100,000 residents between 2002 and 2008. The overall total number of patients for the period was 19.

Nahariya was home to the only asbestos plant in the country, which was shut down in 1997. Mesothelioma develops several decades after exposure to asbestos. The vast majority of cases involve persons who worked with the toxic material.

The highest rate of asbestos-related cancer cases in the world can be found, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, in the environs of Genoa, Italy, where there are 5.8 cases for every 100,000 persons.

Seven years ago, in the Acre district the rate stood at only 3.55 per 100,000. By comparison, in the Tel Aviv district the rate is only 0.55 cases per 100,000 residents.

Between 1990 and 2008 there were a total of 606 cases of mesothelioma in Israel. Most of the people who developed the disease have died.

In recent years there have been 30 new cases of mesothelioma per year, mainly among men who worked with asbestos.

Dr. Avi Weiner, an expert in work-related diseases at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, noted at the conference that people who were in close contact with those who were directly exposed to asbestos are also at risk for developing mesothelioma. "We had two cases of wives who became ill because their husband's clothes carried asbestos particles," he said.

Weiner warned that the numbers of people who will develop the disease will increase as persons exposed in the past to asbestos age. He noted that he had treated a 93-year-old man for mesothelioma who had apparently been exposed to asbestos around 70 years before.