Move over lobster, Maine has a new claim to fame. A March report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that Maine has the highest rate of mesothelioma deaths of any state. The document covers data from 1999 to 2015, and raises new concerns about asbestos exposure. Averaged over this period, Maine’s mesothelioma mortality rate is 22 per 1 million citizens.
According to the Maine CDC, instances of mesothelioma peaked in 2011. This is a disappointing reality check against earlier predictions of a decrease in mesothelioma deaths after a peak in 2005. Leading up to 2005, an increase in mortality was expected, since mesothelioma can manifest long after victims are first exposed — often 20 to 50 years later. It seems we were further from than peak than we had hoped.
The report confirms that this rise in mortality hits the age group over 85 the hardest, “most likely representing exposure many years ago.” Asbestos also causes other long-term health concerns which weren’t covered by this report. These include asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs, and asbestos-related lung cancer.
And Second Place Goes to…
Washington is the only other state with more than 20 mesothelioma deaths per million people. If that number is too abstract, consider it in different terms. Another CDC report asks how many years could these victims have otherwise spent enjoying a productive life or a well-earned retirement with family and friends?
In Washington, that number was a tragic 12.9 years. Asbestos-related death is not just a problem for 85 year olds — it steals over a decade’s worth of precious life, often from people who paid their dues working tough, laborious industrial jobs.
In fact, 1 industry — shipbuilding — is the common thread between these 2 states, Maine and Washington, on opposite coasts. The CDC notes that “among the 96.3% of deaths in 23 states for which industry and occupation were known, shipbuilding and construction industries were major contributors to malignant mesothelioma mortality.”
It’s also clear from the data that even today there is plenty of room for improvement in the shipbuilding industry. Given the effectiveness of OSHA and CDC guidelines, it seems companies are still cutting corners where they can. The report explains how “the continuing occurrence of mesothelioma deaths among persons aged [under] 55 years suggests ongoing occupational and environmental exposures to asbestos fibers.”
In recent years, the U.S. share of shipbuilding has been shrinking. These companies face tough competition, and are willing to put profits ahead of worker safety to stay afloat. Despite this pressure, U.S. shipyards generated $25.5 Billion in revenue in 2015. With this kind of money, and a critical position in the military-industrial complex, the shipbuilding sector can endanger their workforce with near impunity.
In the face of such danger, government protections are absolutely critical for workers exposed to asbestos. The science is clear. We know the cause of mesothelioma, and we know how to protect against it. Citizens and politicians in Maine and Washington must demand responsibility from the corporations in their communities.
Government in Retreat
The CDC report emphasizes “the need for maintaining asbestos exposure prevention efforts and for ongoing surveillance to monitor temporal trends.” Sadly, in today’s political climate, this common sense guidance is by no means a guarantee.
The 2 federal agencies that regulate asbestos and monitor mesothelioma are under attack by the Trump administration. Americans’ only protections from asbestos were hard won by the EPA. Now that agency faces a devastating 31 percent budget cut.
The CDC, the very agency that commissioned this report, would hardly fare better. The administration proposes reorganizing the CDC through state block grants. The former director of the CDC, Tom Frieden, calls this “a really bad idea.” Handing federal oversight to states like Washington and Maine, whose economies rely on shipyards, could only make working conditions more dangerous.
With less regulation, the proposed 20 percent cut to the National Institute of Health (NIH) adds insult to injury. The slash could cripple research into Mesothelioma, along with countless other diseases.
But The People Still Have Power
Thankfully, it is Congress that will ultimately pass the country’s budget. Now is the time for politicians to listen to their constituents and put people before profits.
This new CDC report should serve as a reminder of the work to be done. “Despite regulatory actions and the decline in use of asbestos, the annual number of malignant mesothelioma deaths remains substantial.” Medical experts had hoped to see the mesothelioma death toll decline by now. Instead, it is time to get to work advocating for justice and common sense regulation.
No American should trade 13 years of life to feed their family.