Incidence Rates Remain Steady Despite Dramatic Decline in Asbestos Use

Mesothelioma written on a green chalkboard with arrows

The use of asbestos within the United States has been reduced dramatically in recent decades, but the incidence of mesothelioma cancer has remained stubbornly and hauntingly steady.

Work toward finding a cure – or at least better therapies – has never been more important.

According to records updated this week by the Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Program at the National Cancer Institute, the annual incidence rate of mesothelioma in America remains just above the 3,000 mark, where it has hovered for 30 years.

Mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive cancer that is caused primarily by exposure to asbestos, a mineral that was used extensively for commercial purposes through much of the 20th century.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta recently completed a data analysis from both SEER and the National Program for Cancer Registries that confirmed the inability of America to cut the incidence rate.

Mesothelioma is one of the few cancers that is caused almost exclusively by human negligence and commercial greed. The toxicity of asbestos has been known since the 1930s, but its use continued to increase for the next 40 years.

Use of Asbestos Drops

The use of asbestos in America peaked at 803,000 metric tons in 1973. It dropped steadily since – to 1,180 metric tons in 2011 – as the public clamor for more restrictions became louder.

Yet mesothelioma rates never dropped. One of the biggest reasons that mesothelioma remains a devastating problem today is the lengthy latency period between initial exposure to asbestos fibers and a confirmed diagnosis. It can take anywhere from 10-50 years.

There also is the issue of its presence in almost every structure and product built before the mid-1980s. Its ability to strengthen, insulate and resist heat, while mixed with almost anything, made it almost ubiquitous in America.

Unfortunately, it becomes more dangerous as it ages and becomes disturbed, sending the fibers airborne. Any renovation or remodeling or demolition raises the risk of exposure.

When microscopic asbestos fibers are unknowingly inhaled or ingested, they can lodge themselves in the lining of the lungs or abdomen and trigger a chain of slow physiological reactions that can lead to mesothelioma, or other serious issues.

“The overall incidence of the disease is not going down,” said renowned thoracic surgeon Dr. Abraham Lebenthal, from the Boston VA Healthcare System. “We may have different groups of people getting it more or less, but at the end of the day, the numbers are staying where they are.”

Incidence Rates Unchanged

According to the SEER report updated this week, the incidence rate was 1 in 100,000 annually from 2008-2010.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, America’s population was 308,745,538 in 2010,  which meant that just over 3,000 people were diagnosed with mesothelioma in each of those years.

In every reporting period since 1980, the rate of mesothelioma has been between 0.9 in 100,000 and 1.2 in 100,000. The average incidence rate from 1975 to 2010 was 1 in 100,000.

The highest incidence rate – 17.2 cases in 100,000 people — was among males in the 75-84 age group during the 2008-2010 period. Men overall were more likely than women, 1.8 to 0.4 among 100,000, to get mesothelioma during that same period.

Areas that have the highest risk, according to the latest reporting period, are Seattle/Puget Sound, Louisiana and New Jersey. The lowest overall rates are in Hawaii and Georgia.

Although mesothelioma has no cure, advancements have been made in regard to treatment in recent years. Survival rates have improved, although much of the success has been linked to earlier diagnosis and the age of the patient.

In the latest reporting period, the five-year survival rate was 14.5 percent for those who were younger than 65 at the time of diagnosis. It was only 5.7 percent for those who were older than 65 at the time of diagnosis, and 3.9 percent for those 75 or older.


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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