Asbestos use in the United States declined dramatically in recent decades, but the toxicity it left behind still rages, requiring even more vigilance today.
“Clearly, people still are getting sick from being exposed to asbestos,” said Ken Rosenman, M.D., Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine chief at Michigan State University. “We are doing a better job of controlling ongoing exposure, but we have to remain vigilant. Asbestos was once a useful product. That’s why it was used so much, but we’re still paying the price for that.”
An inhalation or ingestion of microscopic asbestos fibers can cause a variety of serious illnesses, including lung cancer, asbestosis or mesothelioma. The latency of mesothelioma can be anywhere from 10 to 50 years.
Those diseases are the reason behind the need for National Asbestos Awareness Week, which begins today. Because asbestos is not banned in the United States, we need to accentuate the importance of protecting the public against this mineral.
Number of Mesothelioma Diagnoses Steady
Asbestos use in the United States peaked at 803,000 metric tons in 1973. The consumption steadily dropped — to 1,180 metric tons in 2011 — as the dangers of the product became better known, but the number of diagnosed illnesses has remained remarkably steady and in some cases climbed.
And the problem is not going away anytime soon.
Although asbestos, by comparison, is hardly used today in commercial and residential construction, much of the older construction remains, making it even more dangerous as it ages and becomes more friable.
Much of the exposure today is coming from the renovations or improper demolition of older structures, and not the manufacture of new products. Asbestos fibers, once so coveted for insulating, strengthening and heat resistance, still can be found on any number of older products.
An estimated 3,000 people still are being diagnosed annually with mesothelioma within the United States. An estimated 10,000 people still die each year from an asbestos-related disease.
“The data is clear, we haven’t peaked yet (with mesothelioma or asbestosis),” Rosenman said last week during an interview with Asbestos.com. “We (in the United States) used a lot of asbestos, so there still is a lot of it out there.”
Michigan an Example for Asbestos Ban
Rosenman doesn’t have to look very far for examples when lecturing his students in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The state of Michigan is a classic example regarding the steady number of serious asbestos-related diseases in this country.
According to a joint report done by the Michigan State University Department of Medicine and the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, there has been a consistently steady stream of mesothelioma cases since 1985.
There have been between 80 and 140 mesothelioma cases reported each year in Michigan since 1992. There have been more than 100 cases in each of the last 10 years in Michigan. And the incidence of asbestosis hospitalizations in the state has increased by 72 percent since 2000.
“We’ve banned very few things in this country. It’s just not in our culture to ban things,” Rosenman said. “Asbestos here is restricted. The fact that Canada is no longer mining it, that’s a big deal. I think that’s very important. The issue here is making people aware of what is out there.”
Rosenman also has raised the issue of making victims of asbestos exposure aware of their various options, especially regarding workman’s compensation.
“Look at how few people with mesothelioma are being compensated,” he said. “There are about 120 people a year getting it (mesothelioma) in Michigan, but people who receive workman’s comp or sue an asbestos company, there are only a handful.”
Cure for Mesothelioma: Ban Asbestos
Although the medical community is getting better at treating asbestos-related diseases, there still is no cure for mesothelioma. Advances have been made in diagnostics, in chemotherapy drugs and in surgical techniques, but the issue of handling the millions of tons of asbestos in products still out there remains a quandary.
No one is yet predicting a decline in asbestos-related illnesses.
“The overall incidence of the disease is not going down,” thoracic surgeon Abraham Lebenthal, M.D. from the Boston VA Healthcare System, told Asbestos.com. “We may have different groups of people getting it more or less, but the end of the day, the numbers are staying where they’ve been.”
Asbestos Awareness Week actually started as National Asbestos Awareness Day in 2005, providing an opportunity to educate the public to the world-wide problems caused by asbestos.
It originated with United States Senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). The sponsor now has become Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.) as a way to honor asbestos victims in Libby, Montana, which became synonymous with the worst community-wide asbestos exposure in American history.
“At this point, it’s important to stay vigilant to minimize exposure,” Rosenman said. “Progress has been made, but we need to do better.”