15,000 Asbestos Deaths Per Year in the United States

The death toll is higher than previously estimated.

According to new analyses by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Action Fund, at least 12,000 to 15,000 people die from asbestos-related diseases in the United States each year.

Why is the death toll greater than previously thought? Deaths by mesothelioma and asbestosis, the two of the fatal diseases directly caused by asbestos exposure, had been quantified by the CDC’s death records. But the EWG Action Fund collaborated with the International Agency for Research on Cancer to study the CDC’s records in an attempt to accurately estimate the number of additional deaths caused by asbestos-related lung cancer.

But why is the mortality rate so high today? Despite the fact that asbestos use was significantly reduced during the 1980s, the delayed nature of the diseases that it causes means that thousands of people living in the U.S. still suffer and die from them annually. There has been no drop in deaths yet, even though America has cut its mining, production, and usage of asbestos. In fact, the death rates remain steady.

The CDC states that most deaths derive from exposure that happened decades ago. Mesothelioma typically occurs from asbestos exposure twenty to forty years prior. To make matters worse, this form of cancer is not usually discovered until its advanced stages, making treatment practically impossible and leaving the victim with little time to live following diagnosis.

The EWG Action Fund says its report cannot give a more exact number because asbestos-related deaths are not always documented by public health records.

Epidemiologist and former assistant surgeon general of the U.S government, Dr. Richard Lemen says,

“As shocking as these figures are, they may be too low… The report did not estimate deaths from other asbestos-related diseases.”

Asbestos exposure can cause ovarian cancer and cancer of the larynx as well. It has also been linked to stomach and colorectal cancer. Additionally, Dr. Lemen states that based on studies, the rates of lung cancer caused by asbestos may be even higher than previously estimated.

Furthermore, if doctors failed to ask patients about their asbestos exposure or if patients were unaware they’d been exposed, then asbestos would not be listed on their death certificates as a cause. And other asbestos-related deaths may have been wrongfully attributed to pneumonia or other respiratory illnesses.

“Clearly, asbestos kills more Americans each year than we thought,”

says Sonya Lunder, a senior research analyst with the EWG Action Fund.

“The fact that it is still legal and used in the U.S. is an outrage.”

Despite these shockingly high numbers, the EWG Action Fund does state that their estimate is conservative.

Though most of these deaths are from asbestos exposure years ago, the CDC notes that potential exposure continues today. Because of this, there will continue to be deaths from asbestos up to fifty years from now, even if asbestos is banned outright today. Unsuspecting people will also continue to die from exposure to products and deteriorating buildings that contain asbestos.

The EWG recommends one specific and long overdue action by the United States government to protect its citizens:

“To keep even more victims from exposure, suffering and death, the nation needs a total ban on asbestos.”

Mortality rates from asbestos are not expected to peak until around 2020.

Rachel Sasser

Author

Rachel Sasser is a lawyer, blogger, and freelance writer with an interest in the international politics of asbestos. She believes that the United States has a lot to learn about public health priorities from the way that other countries have handled their own asbestos issues and mesothelioma victims. She has a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and practiced law in North Carolina.