Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its newest data regarding asbestos exposure across the nation. Although the numbers are undesirable, the CDC is at a loss to explain what is going on.
According to the report, the number of deaths caused by malignant mesothelioma – a condition caused directly by asbestos exposure – is on an upward trend of 5 percent. In 1999, the annual death toll was 2,479, but in 2015, it was 2,597.
It’s not so surprising to see an increase in mesothelioma deaths among the elderly population, as the dangers of asbestos were little known in the mid-to-late 20th century. In addition, advances in medicine are enabling easier detection of the rare disease.
However, researchers at the CDC were left scratching their heads at the number of younger people continuing to suffer asbestos-related medical issues. Considering several years’ worth of effort to reduce exposure, these rates should be decreasing. So why aren’t they?
Asbestos-Triggered Mesothelioma Deaths Still Ongoing
Between 1999 and 2015, the CDC received reports of 45,221 mesothelioma-related deaths. Of this staggering number, 16,914 deaths were among people aged 75 to 84 years, and 682 were among those between 25 and 44 years.
Although the younger generation is experiencing fewer deaths, the CDC indicates in its report that “continuing occurrence of malignant mesothelioma deaths in persons aged <55 years suggests ongoing inhalation exposure to asbestos fibers and possibly other causative EMPs [elongate mineral particles].”
Despite the possibility of other EMPs, asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma thus far. The deadly mineral was often used in manufacturing and commercial products during the 20th century for its heat resistance, durability, and low cost, among other favorable properties.
Favorable as asbestos was for manufacturing, however, it was a nightmare for the human body. When mishandled or damaged, asbestos-containing products released microscopic fibers into the air, which were easily inhaled. When inhaled, these fibers can lodge in the tissue of major organs – such as the lungs, stomach, and heart – cause cell damage, and develop into mesothelioma.
Asbestos – The Silent Killer
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer, and an extremely aggressive one. There is currently no cure and a low life expectancy after diagnosis of 1 year. Particularly problematic is its latency period (the time between first exposure to asbestos and diagnosis) which can be as long as 70 years. By this time, the disease is too far developed to improve.
With the sheer lethality of mesothelioma in mind, it’s terrifying to think that deaths among young people are still possible – even 40 years after asbestos use was partially banned. But the CDC simply doesn’t understand potential causes, and asbestos isn’t entirely banned yet.
“The problem with asbestos exposure is, there are really so many places where one can be exposed," said Dr. Hedy Kindler, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and director of its mesothelioma program. She cited occupational exposure as 1 of the most common. “This disease remains relevant, and it remains a killer of people who, of no fault of their own other than doing their job, are exposed to something that was preventable.”
EPA’s Plans Likely to Fold Under New Management?
Unlike in the last several decades of the 20th century, there are now regulations in place to support workplace safety against mesothelioma and asbestos such as protective equipment, additional training, and medical monitoring.
“We have to make sure that people who could have been exposed have adequate protection and are aware of it,” Kindler continues.
But despite regulatory action and a widespread ban of certain asbestos products, the CDC now recognizes a need to strengthen asbestos exposure prevention efforts. Contrary to earlier predictions suggesting asbestos-triggered mesothelioma mortality would decline after 2005, CDC’s latest report notes that the number of mesothelioma deaths is still “substantial.”
Increased asbestos regulation sounds great, of course. But whether it’s achievable is another question. Last month, Scott Pruitt was confirmed as President Donald Trump’s new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator. However, as environmental health advocates have observed, protection seems to be the last thing on Pruitt’s mind.
Anti-asbestos activists, too, are concerned. Trump has openly expressed his disbelief of asbestos threats. And Pruitt made his intention quite plain: he would not ban asbestos if elected.
The Obama administration worked hard to continue investigation of asbestos and to make progress toward a full ban. Just before Trump assumed office, the EPA made a final announcement about ramping up these efforts. But Trump and Pruitt seem to have other plans – meaning this was quite possibly all for nothing.