Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was used for a variety of purposes before it was discovered that exposure could lead to asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. After the discovery of the dangers, profit-oriented businesses continued to use the material and downplayed the risks.
The damage has been colossal.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 125 million people have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace.
In America, some important regulations have been put in place, but asbestos is still not banned – in fact, asbestos imports are increasing. People continue to get sick from this carcinogenic mineral, and that is likely to continue, even if asbestos were banned world-wide tomorrow. This is because mesothelioma has an average latency period of 20-50 years from asbestos-exposure and the first symptoms of illness.
In an effort to consolidate information and to raise awareness, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released an interactive map which charts, state-by-state and county-by-county, the number of victims asbestos has claimed over the last 15 years. The following is a list of the 15 states that have the highest number of asbestos deaths.
Three highly-populated counties surrounding Minneapolis accounted for many of the deaths in the state, but one city doesn’t explain the numbers entirely. Mining is a big business in Minnesota, which is a leading supplier of iron ore for the rest of America. St. Louis and Carlton counties saw a high number of deaths, and this is likely because they are part of the Iron Range. This range contains valuable ores, but it is also rich with naturally occurring asbestos, which miners may be exposed to.
14. North Carolina
North Carolina has a number of coastal cities with heavy industry, shipbuilding, and power plants likely contributing to this high number. The state is home to a number of talc mines. Talc, the softest mineral on earth, has a number of commercial and cosmetic uses. Unfortunately, talc and asbestos often occur together in geological formations. This puts miners at serious risk as they disturb asbestos fibers getting at the nearby talc. Additionally, talcum powder made with asbestos-contaminated talc has been linked to the development of ovarian cancer.
There is a high number of asbestos-related deaths in the populous counties surrounding Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city. Brown County, the home of Green Bay, also has a high number of deaths, but urban industry is not totally to blame in Wisconsin. Looking at the death-rate (Asbestos-Related Death Rate Per 100,000 People), the numbers suggest that there is an abnormally high rate of asbestos deaths in the northern counties of the state. Although there are not as many deaths, the rate at which people are dying in these counties is cause for concern. The Iron Range stretches east from Minnesota, through Wisconsin, and in to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It may not be the whole story, but getting miners better protections and treatment is something that should have occurred a long time ago.
For a small state in terms of territory, a number of factors contribute to Massachusetts being so high on this list. Massachusetts has always been famed for its shipbuilders, and asbestos was widely used in shipbuilding for most of the 20th century. Workers in this industry are at a tremendous risk. Naval shipyards in Boston and nearby Kittery, Maine might help explain these numbers, as Navy veterans face a high risk of asbestos exposure. Asbestos was also widely used in buildings in Massachusetts, and its removal has caused a fresh wave of exposures.
A coastal state like Massachusetts, Virginia is also the home of many shipbuilders who worked closely with deadly asbestos fibers. Understandably, many of the asbestos-related deaths are in the counties on Chesapeake Bay, but mining in the Appalachian Mountains has also contributed to asbestos exposure. One of the most sinister aspects to mesothelioma is that a person does not need to work directly with asbestos to develop the disease. Sadly, many workers unknowingly carried asbestos fibers on their clothing from the workplace into their house. The number of people exposed to asbestos in this way is hard to measure, but in a landmark ruling, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that companies do bear responsibility for non-employees who are exposed to asbestos-covered clothing.
Families all over Washington state have been harmed by asbestos. The populous counties that surround Puget Sound have been the hardest hit. This includes cities like Seattle, Kent, Tacoma, and Bremerton, home of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Because the Navy used asbestos in virtually every ship built before 1983, Navy veterans have an increased risk of asbestos exposure. Washington state is also home to oil refineries and aluminum plants, both industries that have seen workers die from asbestos exposure. Further inland, the state’s lucrative timber industry used asbestos products and materials in paper mills for years.
Michigan, once the automotive manufacturing capital of the world, will likely have new cases of mesothelioma for years to come. Because of its durability and heat-resistance, asbestos was used in brake-pads and other automotive parts that would be subject to wear and heat. In the 3 counties surrounding Detroit – the famous Motor City – there have been over 2,400 asbestos-related deaths in the last 15 years. In the upper peninsula, there are 4 counties with a higher death rate than those outside Detroit, likely connected to mining operations in the Iron Range.
8. New Jersey
Every county in New Jersey had over 100 asbestos-related deaths in the last 15 years. Situated on the ocean between Philadelphia and New York City, the state has long been a manufacturing hub for the east coast. Asbestos used to be a big industry in New Jersey, and it has left its mark. The town of Manville, in Somerset County, is named for the Johns-Manville Corporation, a former world-leader in the production of asbestos. The company knew about the dangers of asbestos exposure and did not tell their workers, many of whom were killed by it. It’s been decades since the plant in Manville closed down, but the state continues to pay the price.
The first “Rust Belt” state on this list, the deaths from asbestos in Illinois are concentrated in Chicago and its surrounding cities, but the overall damage is wide-spread. Counties around cities like Peoria, Springfield, and those bordering St. Louis, Missouri also saw hundreds of deaths. Asbestos was used in school buildings throughout the state, and there are also oil refineries and power plants which used asbestos in their machinery. On the shore of Waukegan, a city just north of Chicago, lies the site of another Johns-Manville plant. It is 150 acres of land poisoned by asbestos. It’s being addressed by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund Cleanup Program, but it will be a long time before the this visible scar heals.
Ohio has the most asbestos related deaths of any land-locked state. Like many of the “Rust Belt” states, manufacturing spurred the growth of Ohio’s major cities, and those cities have seen the highest number of deaths. In each of these cities, manufacturers made use of asbestos in their machinery and made products using asbestos. There are 5 counties in Ohio with more than 30 asbestos-related deaths each year, and each county is home to a major city. Cuyahoga county, home of Cleveland, leads the list with over 1,200 deaths in the last 15 years.
The state of Texas hosts many industries that made use of asbestos for as long as they could. As such, workers in Texas have been exposed to asbestos on the job in oil refineries, foundries, factories, and even offshore. With a few exceptions, the Texas counties hit hardest by asbestos exposure are around the major urban areas and along the coast. Harris County, which includes Houston, has averaged well over 100 deaths a year, more than doubling the rate of any other county. This is not to say that counties containing other major cities were not hit hard. Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and El Paso all had more than 20 asbestos related deaths a year.
4. New York
For years, tons and tons of asbestos flowed into and through New York’s busy ports around New York City and on Long Island. Today, there are extremely high numbers of asbestos-related deaths reported in these counties each year. But it is not just the Atlantic shore that is hit hard. Talc miners in northern New York State have developed mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. In the western part of the state, asbestos-related deaths are highest near the major cities of Rochester and Buffalo, each with over 1,000 deaths in the last 15 years. Another factor that exacerbates the situation is the extreme weather. After Hurricane Sandy, for example, rescuers and clean-up crews had to deal with the sad fact that asbestos had been used in many of the homes that were destroyed. This put first responders at immediate risk, and spread durable, cancerous asbestos across the seaboard.
Between the oil refining and shipbuilding on the coast near Philadelphia, the steel industry in Pittsburg, and the mining legacy across the state, there are only a few places in Pennsylvania that have not been hit hard by asbestos. In the Montgomery County town of Ambler, just north of Philadelphia, asbestos products were manufactured for 100 years before operations finally ceased. For much of that time, the carcinogenic effects of asbestos were not fully understood. Workers breathed in the toxic fibers and excess materials were discarded without care. In a study by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, they found that the rate of mesothelioma was 3.1 times higher for residents of Ambler than it was for residents of Pennsylvania. And remember, Pennsylvania hardly occupies a healthy spot on this list.
Industry, manufacturing, and refining in Florida’s large coastal cities drive the high number of asbestos-related deaths in the state. The southeast corner which includes, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami, has the highest number of deaths, but the damage is distributed across Florida. Seventeen counties throughout the state averaged more than 20 deaths per year. Another reason for the high rate of asbestos exposure is because many of the buildings in Florida were built during a development boom that coincided with the decades in which asbestos was being widely used construction materials. This poses a continued risk to homeowners and construction workers, and with hurricanes destroying homes every year throughout the state, it is impossible to know the spread of this poisonous mineral.
In California, there are only a handful of counties where asbestos does not occur naturally. In fact, serpentine, the state rock, is often rich with asbestos. Some of the largest asbestos deposits in the world are in California, and for years, earth was blasted and hauled to make way for roads and homes. Like Florida, there was a surge of construction in California during the peak-years of asbestos consumption. It was often used in building materials to make them stronger and more fire-proof, 2 essential concerns for architects in an earthquake-prone state. There are mines, power plants, and refineries along the coast. Additionally, there are several large Navy shipyards with histories of asbestos exposure. In short, asbestos is in the ground and the buildings all over California.
If you or a loved one worked in any of these counties, especially in high-risk occupations, asbestos exposure may be a real threat.