Deaths from Asbestos Exposure

Summary

It’s difficult to determine how many Americans die from asbestos-related diseases every year. And it’s impossible to find out worldwide death rates stemming from asbestos exposure. General statistics regarding asbestos deaths are rare and somewhat unreliable. But it's safe to estimate well over 10,000 people across the United States pass away annually due to illnesses related to asbestos exposure.

A recent report by the U.S. non-governmental organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) claims the most recent figures support that during a fourteen-year period from 1999 to 2013, between 189,000 and 221,000 American deaths were linked to asbestos exposure.

That’s an average of between 13,500 and 15,750 deaths per year.

The EWG cautioned their estimates are conservative. Realistic numbers could reach 20,000 asbestos deaths annually.

There’s a good reason why asbestos-related death statistics are erratic. It’s because of inconsistent diagnosis and death classifications by physicians and coroners. Many people who suffered diseases directly related to asbestos finally succumbed to ailments like cardiac arrest, stroke or a pulmonary embolism. Those may be the final anatomical cause of death, but the underlying contributor was an initial disease brought on by long-term asbestos exposure.

The EWG relied on statistics from the United States Center for Disease Control database. Their most recent figures listed multiple causes of death, which is somewhat confusing. Some of the death certificates recorded known asbestos-caused disorders as primary death causes. Others made faint reference to asbestos-related diseases as secondary or third level factors. They also report many deaths classified without proper medical antemortem supervision and diagnosis. As well, many cases were concluded without accurate postmortem histology exams.

Misdiagnosis is common with asbestos-related diseases and is especially true with lung disorders. Diseases related to asbestos first-cause are often misdiagnosed as pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis, fibrosis, emphysema and COPD. It’s another good reason to question how valid asbestos-related death figures are. They could be much higher than estimated.

History of Asbestos-Related Deaths

Archaeological evidence supports that humans have been using products with asbestos-containing materials (ACM) for thousands of years. Pottery found in Scandinavia had asbestos mixed in clay showing these ancients knew asbestos fibers made cooking pots stronger and fireproof. The Egyptians made asbestos funeral blankets, and the Greeks used ACM in their building products. In fact, the word “asbestos” comes from the Greek term for “inextinguishable.”

But it was the Romans who first documented a high rate of early deaths in their asbestos workers. Pliny the Elder termed it “the disease of slaves” after observing disproportionately high deaths among slaves forced to work in asbestos mines and manufacturing processes. Even then, respiratory and other diseases were linked to asbestos exposure.

It was the Industrial Revolution where modern asbestos use caught on. Steam power was the catalyst driving the Industrial Age, and tons of asbestos materials insulated and fireproofed boilers, furnaces and ductwork. This trend caught on in shipyards and factories. Soon many different building products contained asbestos fibers to add strength and reduce weight.

MJN Brief

Over the asbestos-consuming period from the early 1900s to 1980, it’s estimated at least 27 million Americans had some form of asbestos exposure. If the EWG statistics are reliable, it could be nearly 1 million people in the U.S. who died after asbestos exposure in this period. There is no way of telling.

Fatal Asbestos-Related Diseases

Not all asbestos-related diseases are ultimately fatal. Most asbestos diseases are benign and don’t affect multiple organs by spreading or metastasizing. Minor health effects caused by asbestos exposure commonly include pleural plaque and pleural effusions. Those aren’t serious health issues like these three life-threatening asbestos-related diseases.

  • Asbestosis: This is a common lung disease caused by airborne asbestos exposure. Inhaled asbestos fibers act as abrasions on the inner lungs. Scar tissue naturally occurs that heals over the impaled asbestos fibers. Eventually this scabbing becomes thick and heavy. It blocks the air sacs and weighs the lungs to the point where breathing is difficult or impossible. Asbestosis is not a cancerous tumor as it doesn’t spread outside the lungs. It’s not always fatal, but the majority of asbestos-related deaths are attributed to asbestosis cases.
  • Lung Cancer: Only around 20 percent of malignant lung cancer tumors are caused by asbestos exposure. Most lung cancers are due to smoking and exposure to other carcinogens. However, lung tumors caused by asbestos contamination are often fatal unless caught in early stages. By the time the first symptoms present, lung cancer that is caused by asbestos may have progressed too far to stop. Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy treatments are the main lung cancer treatments.
  • Mesothelioma: Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, which is a rare but deadly form of cancer. It usually affects the outer lung lining or mesothelium but can also settle around the heart, abdomen, and testicles. There is no cure for mesothelioma. It’s only a matter of time from diagnosis until the patient dies. Lifestyle adjustments and pain relief medications best manage mesothelioma cases.

Asbestos Types Causing Death

Every form of asbestos is a known carcinogen having the potential to kill people. No one is safe once they’ve been exposed to asbestos. However, some asbestos types are more dangerous than others. Risk of death depends on many accumulated factors including the amount of asbestos a person has exposure to, the duration of exposure and the type of asbestos they inhale or ingest.

There are two distinct asbestos groups or types. The most common is serpentine asbestos fibers that are long, soft and wavy or resembling a serpent shape. Chrysotile fibers are the only member of the serpentine class. Approximately 90 percent of all American asbestos products contain serpentine fibers. Because they’re soft and flexible, chrysotile asbestos particles are less harmful than the other type.

Amphibole asbestos forms the other classification. These particles are small, hard and extremely sharp. Amphibole sub-classes include crocidolite, transite, amosite, actinolite and anthophyllite fibers. Of these, crocidolite asbestos is the most deadly. These microscopic fibers easily puncture soft lung tissue and pass through to the mesothelium and other organs.

Chrysotile asbestos fibers are more forgiving than amphibole particles. That doesn’t make them less deadly. Most American workers had chrysotile exposure, but that had a downside. With there being so much airborne chrysotile fibers in American workplaces, more workers had greater asbestos exposure levels over longer times.

Amphibole asbestos suited high-temperature applications better than chrysotile fibers. Accordingly, many workers in hot, pressurized occupations like boilermakers and steamfitters experienced the worst asbestos exposure. Occupational statistics show workers around amphibole products had higher exposure death rates.

Compensation for Asbestos-Related Deaths

Workers who contracted an asbestos-related illness from workplace exposure regularly receive compensation settlements from negligent asbestos product manufacturers. This compensation applies to cases of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Awards include costs for medical expenses, lost income and personal injury damages.

Wrongful death suits are another compensation avenue that families of asbestos-related fatalities can pursue. Proof needs to support that the worker died as a direct result of asbestos exposure, where the exposure took place and that the asbestos product manufacturer or employer was negligent in some way.

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Sources
  1. United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration, “Asbestos” Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/index.html Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  2. National Cancer Institute, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk” Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  3. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Asbestos Exposure” Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/asbestos Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  4. U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration, “Asbestos Risks” Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/index.html Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Health Effects from Exposure to Asbestos” Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/learn-about-asbestos#effects Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  6. Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety “Asbestos Exposure Fact Sheet” Retrieved from http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/asbestos/whatis.html Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  7. Asbestos Nation, “Asbestos Kills 12,000-15,000 People Per Year in the U.S.” Retrieved from http://www.asbestosnation.org/facts/asbestos-kills-12000-15000-people-per-year-in-the-u-s/ Accessed on 16 December, 2017
  8. Center for Disease Control, “Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality—United States 1999-2005” Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5815a3.htm Accessed on 16 December, 2017

Last modified: February 15, 2018