A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control brought some bad news: the mesothelioma death rate in the United States continues to rise. Although the danger posed by asbestos fibers has been well known for a hundred years, needless death from asbestos exposure had not gone down, as expected.
The study looked at the mesothelioma death rate in the United States between 1999 and 2015. The number of deaths has risen and fallen over that time period, but it has consistently been above the 1999 figure of 2,479 deaths. The mesothelioma death rate peaked in 2012 at 2,873. It has fluctuated in the years since then, but the 2015 mesothelioma death rate of 2,579 people is still part of an upward trend.
History of the Mesothelioma Death Rate
Workers at the Johns-Manville Corporation first started complaining of mysterious lung ailments in the 1930s. The workers were exposed to asbestos fibers in the insulation and roofing products the company manufactured.
It took decades for Johns-Manville and other corporations that used asbestos to admit the mineral was the cause of a rising asbestos death rate among their employees. In the 1970s, as asbestos litigation shined a light on this negligence, the truth about asbestos and mesothelioma became clear.
Mesothelioma usually appears around 20 to 40 years after first asbestos exposure, according to the CDC study. Scientists assumed that, decades after the dangers of asbestos became known, the death rate would start to trend down. In fact, previous studies had predicted that the mesothelioma death rate would start to decline by 2005. Instead, it has stayed high since then.
The CDC study found the biggest increase among those aged 85 and older, which would seem to be the result of exposure decades earlier. There was a small but surprising number of deaths among people aged 25 to 44. This suggests that more than historical asbestos exposure is driving the mesothelioma death rate.
Why is the Mesothelioma Death Rate Rising?
To protect the health and safety of workers and consumers, several countries have prohibited the use of asbestos. In the US, some companies removed asbestos from their products, but industry fought hard against an outright ban. Although the EPA tried to ban asbestos in the late 1980s, it remains on the market to this day.
Asbestos continues to be present in the environment because of insulation and other materials used before the hazards were fully acknowledged. The report notes that exposure most commonly happens during “maintenance activities, demolition and remediation of existing asbestos in structures, installations, and buildings if controls are insufficient to protect workers.”
That’s not all, though: the report also found that “new asbestos-containing products continue to be manufactured in or imported into the United States.”
OSHA, the government agency that regulates workplace safety, has standards that limit the amount of airborne asbestos workers can be exposed to. Despite this, the study found that 20% of the construction sites OSHA checked in 2003 had illegally high levels of asbestos fibers in the air.
A clear conclusion from the CDC study is that the mesothelioma death rate continues to rise because more people continue to be exposed to asbestos in buildings and at worksites.
Professions with the Highest Mesothelioma Death Rates
The study calculated a proportionate mortality ratio or PMR. This measured the difference between the number of predicted mesothelioma deaths and the actual mesothelioma death rate. The difference reveals additional deaths that may be due to new or unexpected asbestos exposure.
The CDC report broke down the mesothelioma death rate down by industry and occupation. The construction industry had the largest number of mesothelioma deaths. The PMR was highest among those who worked in the ship and boat building industry.
Two other industries stood out as providing potentially dangerous levels of asbestos exposure: petroleum refining and industrial and miscellaneous chemicals.
Not surprisingly, insulation workers were the profession with the highest PMR. The extensive use of asbestos in insulation continues to take a toll on the workers who install and remove it. The occupation with the highest single number of deaths was pipe layers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters. Pipes may be insulated with materials containing asbestos.
Some other occupations at risk for increased mesothelioma death rate include chemical technicians, chemical engineers, sheet metal workers, and sailors and marine oilers.
The bottom line is that any exposure to asbestos can be lethal. The continuing presence of asbestos at construction sites, on ships, in boiler rooms, and elsewhere create a hazard that no one should have to face.
Future of the Mesothelioma Death Rate
It’s not too late for the EPA to regulate asbestos. Consumers, workers, and mesothelioma patients and their families can ask their representatives to make an asbestos ban a priority. An end to new asbestos in the US means that there will be fewer new exposures.
Even if the US does ban asbestos, the mesothelioma death rate may not decline for many years. Because mesothelioma often takes decades to develop, workers who are negligently exposed to this toxic substance today could continue to become sick for years into the future.
But an end to new asbestos in US products will start to reduce asbestos exposure. Asbestos abatement in older homes will continue to reduce the risk of asbestos in our built environment. As new houses are built without asbestos, future generations can look forward to living free from worry about asbestos exposure.
Mesothelioma won’t completely disappear. Asbestos products will remain in older homes for many years. Natural disasters may release asbestos from these homes into the air. The CDC study stated that scientists expect a “background” mesothelioma death rate in a few decades. This will mean many fewer cases of mesothelioma diagnosed every year and many fewer people dying of this disease.
The current upward trend in the mesothelioma death rate is a worrisome sign. New mesothelioma treatments have extended life for some mesothelioma patients. Because of this longer survival time, the death rates studied by the CDC may not paint a complete picture of the rise in mesothelioma cases.
At Mesothelioma Circle, we are committed to helping mesothelioma patients and their families. One way we do that is to work toward a future with less asbestos, where there will be many fewer mesothelioma patients.