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September 18, 2015

Effects of Asbestos Exposure Continue to Devastate Americans

by: Anne McGinness Kearse

As difficult as it was to write this title, I had to share some recent news that all Americans should be aware of: asbestos exposure is responsible for the deaths of 12,000 to 15,000 Americans every year. That is, according to a new study released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Action Fund. This is a stark increase from numbers released by the CDC and suggests that the true toll of asbestos exposure is even worse than previously thought. The data was collected between 1999 and 2013, and clearly demonstrates the fact that people who were exposed years ago are still at great risk of developing a deadly asbestos-related disease.

Inexact Data

Collecting data for asbestos-related diseases is challenging and exact numbers will never be known. There are a number of reasons for this, including:

  • Asbestos exposure is rarely listed as a cause of death for lung cancer victims.
  • Some asbestos-related diseases go undiagnosed.
  • Errors on death certificates cannot be accounted for.

For these reasons, the EWG believes that it takes a conservative approach in its study and that unfortunately the numbers may be even greater.

Asbestos’ Role in Lung Cancer is Often Overlooked

There are three main diseases caused by exposure to asbestos: mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. While mesothelioma and asbestosis are almost always linked with exposure to asbestos, lung cancer victims often don’t realize the impact asbestos may have had on their disease. Smoking has rightly been attributed as the leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, but the combination of smoking with exposure to asbestos leads to an even greater danger. A 2012 study by McCormack, published in the British Journal of Cancer, claims that there are “3.2 to 4 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. for every mesothelioma death among individuals exposed to asbestos.” These statistics show that lung cancer is an even greater threat than mesothelioma or asbestosis to people who have been exposed to asbestos. This is despite the fact that lung cancer related to asbestos exposure often goes unreported.

Blue Collar, Industrial Areas are the Hardest Hit

Asbestos-related disease has made an impact in every corner of the country, but unsurprisingly it has made a greater impact in rust belt states like New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan. In New York, counties that used to have thriving steel industries such as Erie and Niagara had higher death tolls than highly populated areas like Bronx and New York counties. In Pennsylvania’s Alleghany County, “The Steel City” Pittsburg had one of the highest death rates in the country, averaging 107 deaths per year caused by asbestos-related diseases. Six states had asbestos-related death rates 50 to 100 percent above the national average. They are:

  • Delaware
  • Maine
  • Montana
  • Pennsylvania
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

This suggests that it was often small pockets of highly industrialized areas that were the most exposed, rather than big metropolitan areas.

Lingering Effects

The Environmental Working Group’s study reveals that, despite the limited use of asbestos in our modern world, the effects of ignoring the problems of asbestos exposure for too long continue to haunt us today and will continue into the future. Thousands of people will die this year and in the years to come because we ignored a problem that we knew existed.

It is disheartening to know that asbestos has not been banned in the United States, and many Americans may still be exposed to asbestos in their homes or offices. More disturbing is the fact that some countries continue to use asbestos in their products and expose their workers to such a deadly fiber.

This all comes down to the need for even more vigilance to make sure that the same mistakes are not made regarding other occupational hazards as more is learned about the potential harmful effects asbestos could have on workers and their families.