According to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C. non-profit organization, the yearly death rate due to asbestos is now around 10,000 per year, some 2,500 of which are caused by mesothelioma. According to Dr. Michael Harbut, director of the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos Related Cancers, the actual number may actually be much higher, due to “significant underreporting.” This is because of misdiagnoses that frequently identify mesothelioma as something else, usually as a smoking-related disease. This is not uncommon, because many respiratory diseases have similar symptoms. Because of the latency period of asbestos diseases, Dr. Harbut fears that the worst is yet to come. The first asbestos victims recognized as such were exposed in shipyards and other industries during World War II and the years immediately following. Those exposed between the late 1950s through the early 1980s are just now starting to show symptoms of asbestosis and mesothelioma, which have latency periods ranging from 20 to 50 years.
If present trends continue, asbestos will claim over 100,000 lives between now and the year 2015. While mesothelioma is the most notorious, it is not the only asbestos disease, nor even the most common. Asbestosis, which is the result of a build-up of scar tissue inside the lung, is the most frequent result of asbestos exposure. The scar tissue is actually the result of digestive enzymes used by antibodies known as microphages, which attack asbestos fibers in the lungs as if they were a virus or bacteria. The inorganic nature of these fibers makes them impervious to antibodies, however, while their structure cause the microphages to rip open. Once this happens, the digestive enzymes that normally destroy exogenous pathogens attack the lung tissue. Over the years, this causes a build-up of scar tissue inside the alveoli, or air sacs in the lungs, which in turn reduces lung capacity. Lung cancer that is usually attributed to tobacco use can also result from asbestos exposure. In addition, cigarette smoking can greatly exacerbate the chances of developing such cancers; a smoker who has been exposed to asbestos has a 9,000% greater chance of getting lung cancer than a non-smoker.