Epidemic of Asbestos Diseases

It is a quiet crisis in public health in the United States: an epidemic of asbestos-caused diseases that is responsible for the deaths of one out of every 125 American men who die over the age of 50.

Government mortality records and epidemiological studies show that 10,000 Americans die each year—almost 30 per day—from diseases caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos kills thousands more people annually than does skin cancer, and more than die from drowning, fires and Hodgkin’s disease combined.

Although asbestos use in the U.S. is far more restricted than in the past, the misery it creates continues unabated. Mortality rates for mesothelioma and asbestosis rose steadily from 1979 through 1998. Data show that, as in the United Kingdom and Australia, the peak of asbestos-related disease is still a decade away—possibly longer.

Asbestos use and exposure was at its height in the U.S. in the mid-1970s due to a combination of factors:

•    more than 3,000 consumer and industrial products containing
asbestos were being bought and sold
•    factories that turned out asbestos products were contaminating
surrounding communities
•    asbestos was commonly used in homes, schools, and other
buildings for fireproofing and insulation
•    protection for asbestos workers ranged from inadequate to
•    these workers inadvertently brought asbestos dust home to their
family members

Few workplace safeguards before 1980
Not until 1980 were meaningful workplace safeguards enacted, although in some industries, such as construction, asbestos exposure persists even today. The latency period for asbestos diseases ranges from 20 to 50 years, which means that many people who were exposed in the 1960s and 1970s are only now being diagnosed and dying. While better tracking helps to explain the big increase in mortality, asbestos-linked mesothelioma deaths, tend to be underreported, even among workers known to be exposed to asbestos. Although asbestos has been banned in many countries (including all of the European Union as of January 1, 2005), that is not the case in the U.S. or Canada.

It is projected that over the next decade, all asbestos-oriented diseases—including mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer and gastrointestinal cancer—will claim the lives of more than 100,000 Americans. While some states have a higher or lower per-capita rate, the epidemic is national in scale. And for every life that asbestos claims, many others are affected by nonfatal asbestos-caused illnesses.

When will it peak?
Other parts of the industrialized world are suffering along with the U.S. in an epidemic of asbestos-induced cancer that has not yet peaked. The authors of an article in the January 2004 issue of the British Medical Journal predicted that mesothelioma would not peak in the U.K. until 2015 to 2020, when it will take 2,000 lives per year. Australian scientists foresee mesothelioma deaths peaking there in about 2010 and killing 18,000 people by 2020. Things are equally dire in Japan. Close to 100,000 people now alive in the developed world are expected to die of mesothelioma.

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