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Death certification data from pleural cancer in eight European countries providing data to the World Health Organization database over the period 1970–1994 were analysed using a log-linear Poisson model to disentangle the effects of age, birth cohort and period of death. The age effect reached values between 10 and 15/100 000 males at age 80–84 in most countries, except Hungary (6.7), Switzerland (18.0), France (20.6) and the Netherlands (36.5). Cohort effects were steadily and appreciably upwards in all countries up to the generations born in 1940 or 1945, and levelled off for the 1950 cohort, except in Hungary, where persistent rises were observed. Thus, most rises in pleural cancer mortality in Europe were on a cohort of birth basis. Since most pleural cases were asbestos-related mesotheliomas, and since asbestos has an early-stage effect on subsequent mesothelioma risk, exposure early in life is important for determining the subsequent mesothelioma risk of each generation. Consequently, the data indicate that the peak mortality from pleural cancer in most western European countries will be reached in the first decades of the 21st century, i.e. around 2010–2020, when the generations born between 1940 and 1950 will reach the peak age for mesothelioma incidence and mortality. This contrasts with US data, where the peak of pleural cancer incidence has been reached at the end of the 20th century, and reflects a delay in adopting adequate prevention measures since the 1940–1945 generations entered the workforce in the 1960s, when cancer risk from asbestos exposure was already recognized.