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Did You Know? 10 Compelling Asbestos Facts

By Treven Pyles

Posted on August 08th, 2017

The carcinogenic nature of asbestos will gradually cause severe inflammation and tissue scarring, which might eventually give way to mesothelioma. Up to 10% of people who were exposed to asbestos in the workplace will develop pleural mesothelioma.

While asbestos manufacturers went to outrageous lengths to downplay the terrible consequences of exposure during the 20th century, the link between asbestos and cancer is no longer a secret. Although it is a naturally occurring mineral, asbestos is highly carcinogenic. It is worthy of note that asbestos represents a health hazard only when fibers become airborne. The inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers, particularly over the course of a significant period of time, can result in life-threatening diseases such as mesothelioma or lung cancer.

Despite a substantial decrease in asbestos consumption and a series of effective workplace safety regulations, the issue of asbestos exposure is still topical. Every year, between 12,000 and 15,000 deaths in the U.S. are attributed to asbestos exposure, since a disease only ensues within several decades of the first contact with this toxic agent. Massive amounts of asbestos were present in occupational settings such as power plants, construction sites, and shipyards throughout the country before the 1980s, which led to the exposure of over 11 million workers. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the annual number of asbestos victims will continue to remain steady for at least ten more years, after which a gradual decrease is expected.

Asbestos exposure, as well as the numerous illnesses it can cause, is undoubtedly a complex topic. Here are 10 interesting facts concerning the burden of asbestos-related diseases in the U.S. you might not know.

1. Asbestos Is Responsible for One out of Three Occupational Cancer Deaths

Frequent exposure to hazardous agents in the workplace is the culprit behind up to 6% of cancer cases worldwide. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, there are over 100 known human carcinogens and approximately 800 other substances which might entail a cancer risk. Asbestos is a known human carcinogen which can cause plenty of serious diseases, from non-malignant illnesses like asbestosis or pulmonary fibrosis to aggressive forms of cancer such as mesothelioma or lung cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in 2012, exposure to toxic agents on the job resulted in between 45,872 and 91,745 new cancer cases. Even though the prevalence of asbestos in the workplace is very low at the moment, past asbestos exposure is still accountable for one in three deaths stemming from occupational cancer. According to the International Commission of Occupational Health, almost 40,000 deaths in the U.S. occurred due to past asbestos exposure.

2. In 2018, 750 Metric Tons of Raw Asbestos was imported into the U.S.

There is no doubt that asbestos employment has declined substantially since 1973, when a record amount of 804,000 metric tons were consumed in the U.S. However, contrary to popular belief, asbestos is not entirely banned in the country. While a series of federal regulations limiting the use and preventing exposure is currently effective, certain applications of asbestos remain legal. Accordingly, a significant amount of asbestos is still exploited in the U.S. every year.

The primary consumer of asbestos is the chlor-alkali industry, which accounted for nearly 100% of asbestos use during 2018. Nevertheless, asbestos consumption will most likely continue to decrease in the United States, since more and more companies within this industry are turning to non-asbestos diaphragms for the production of chlorine and sodium hydroxide. However, an unknown amount of asbestos in the form of products such as brake materials, asbestos-cement pipe, tile and wallpaper products, and rubber sheets for gaskets continues to be imported, according to the US Geological Survey Report.

3. The First Momentous Asbestos Lawsuit Took Place in 1973, which Brought About Over 25,000 Others throughout the Following Decade

On December 10, 1966, attorney Ward Stephenson filed the first asbestos products lawsuit on behalf of Claude Tomplait, a former insulator from Beaumont, Texas who developed asbestosis as a consequence of occupational asbestos exposure. After having been diagnosed with asbestosis in July of that year, Mr. Tomplait decided to take legal action against eleven asbestos manufacturers to whose products he had been exposed on the job. Some of the companies listed as defendants were Fibreboard, Johns-Manville, and Owens Corning Fiberglas. The case went to trial on May 12, 1969, but the verdict was unfortunately returned in favor of the defendants the following week.

However, in October 1969, the same lawyer took on the case of Clarence Borel, one of Mr. Tomplait's co-workers, who had also been affected by workplace asbestos exposure. Following 33 years of heavy asbestos exposure, he was diagnosed with asbestosis and mesothelioma. The number of defendants involved in Mr. Borel's lawsuit was even greater. Despite being very similar to the previous lawsuit, this case was successful and the plaintiff was eventually awarded $79,436.24.

4. It Can Take up to 50 Years for Mesothelioma - the Most Aggressive Form of Cancer Asbestos Exposure Can Cause - to Develop

There is a good reason why asbestos is also known as the silent killer. One common trait of illnesses resulting from asbestos exposure is a long latency period. Thus, a disease will affect people with a history of asbestos exposure within several decades of the first contact with airborne fibers. While non-malignant diseases have a slightly shorter latency period, typically occurring in 10 to 30 years, mesothelioma takes considerably more time to develop. This form of cancer has very rapid progress, as well as a worrisome prognosis, with the majority of patients surviving for only one year after diagnosis.

Due to their rough texture, asbestos fibers will become embedded in the tissue they reach following inhalation or ingestion, which renders the human body unable to eliminate them. The carcinogenic nature of asbestos will gradually cause severe inflammation and tissue scarring, which might eventually give way to mesothelioma. Up to 10% of people who were exposed to asbestos in the workplace will develop pleural mesothelioma, the most common type of this cancer.

5. The Only Known Cause of Mesothelioma Is Asbestos Exposure

Unlike lung cancer, whose primary risk factor is tobacco smoking, mesothelioma results solely from asbestos exposure. Depending on the location of tumors on the mesothelium, the protective layer of cells which covers most of our internal organs, there are 4 types of mesothelioma:

  • pleural, affecting the lungs and accounting for over 80% of cases
  • peritoneal, developing on the outer lining of the abdomen and being responsible for 10-20% of cases
  • pericardial, occurring on the outer lining of the heart and representing approximately 1% of all cases
  • testicular, developing on the tunica vaginalis testis and accounting for less than 1% of all cases

Although there is no safe asbestos exposure, multiple studies indicate that the amount of asbestos one was in contact with, as well as the duration of exposure, influences the likelihood of developing mesothelioma. Occupational asbestos exposure implies the highest risk in this respect since employees would regularly breathe in enormous amounts of toxic fibers over the course of several years. Indeed, the vast majority of mesothelioma patients have a history of workplace asbestos exposure.

6. 61.4% of Mesothelioma Victims Were Exposed to Asbestos in Industrial Settings

According to data collected by the Work-Related Lung Disease Surveillance System, most people who lost their lives to mesothelioma had worked in industrial facilities such as chemical plants, oil refineries, power plants or automotive assembly plants between 1935 and 1980, when asbestos was highly prevalent in these occupational settings. Construction workers are the second most affected group, with 14.2% of mesothelioma deaths have occurred among them.

Surprisingly, 7% of individuals whose cause of death was mesothelioma had been exposed to asbestos at home via contact with damaged asbestos-containing building materials. Throughout the past century, over 5,000 consumer products were manufactured with asbestos and as a result, the majority of U.S. houses built before the 1980s still have asbestos in their structure. The next occupational groups within which mesothelioma deaths were registered are elementary and secondary school teachers (3.7%) and government workers (2.4%).

7. Asbestos Exposure Can also Cause other Forms of Cancer

In addition to mesothelioma and lung cancer, asbestos exposure is also responsible for a series of other malignant diseases, including:

  • colorectal cancer was added to the list of diseases that doctors should look out for when examining people with a history of asbestos exposure by OSHA in 1986
  • laryngeal and esophageal cancer, whose connection with asbestos exposure was officially confirmed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2009
  • gastrointestinal cancer, which affects over 275,000 Americans annually and which also occurs in people who swallowed asbestos fibers

Similarly to mesothelioma, these forms of cancer entail a latency period of several decades, as the development of inflammation and tissue scarring - which always forego the disease per se - is a gradual process.

8. On Average, 30 People Lose their Lives to Asbestos-related Diseases every day in the U.S.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimated that illnesses stemming from asbestos exposure are responsible for between 12,000 and 15,000 deaths annually in the U.S. According to the report published by Jukka Takala, the President of the International Commission of Occupational Health, 39,275 deaths occur due to asbestos-related diseases in the United States annually, which is more than double the estimate made by the EWG in 2015. To be more specific, 34,270 lung cancer deaths, 3,161 mesothelioma deaths, 787 ovarian cancer deaths, 443 larynx cancer deaths, and 613 chronic asbestosis deaths have occurred as a result of asbestos exposure. Consequently, non-malignant pulmonary diseases are the most widespread cause of asbestos-related deaths. It is noteworthy that often times, these diseases forego the onset of a more serious illness like lung cancer or mesothelioma.

9. The Most Common Types of Occupational Cancer Are Lung Cancer, Mesothelioma, and Throat Cancer - all of which Can Be Caused by Asbestos Exposure

Even though the majority of lung cancer cases are the result of tobacco smoking, 6-13% of people who are struggling with this disease were diagnosed with it after having been exposed to carcinogenic agents in the workplace. Asbestos exposure causes six times more cases of lung cancer than mesothelioma and is accountable for approximately 4% of all lung cancer cases in the U.S. To make matters worse, medical studies suggest that smokers with a history of asbestos exposure are between 50 and 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers who were in contact with this toxic mineral.

10. At the Moment, over 20 Million People in the U.S. Are at Risk for Mesothelioma

Considering the unprecedented exploitation of asbestos which took place throughout the better part of the last century, it is perhaps not surprising that plenty of Americans were exposed to asbestos somehow. Over half of the people who are currently at risk for mesothelioma came in contact with asbestos in the workplace - according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, approximately 11 million individuals were subjected to occupational asbestos exposure between 1940 and 1978. As for the remaining, they underwent other types of asbestos exposure, such as:

  • environmental - from nearby operations involving asbestos, such as mining or construction
  • secondary - via contact with family members whose work clothes were laden with asbestos dust
  • domestic - by inhaling asbestos fibers which came off damaged or old building materials