Could the state where you live have an impact on your cancer risk?
That’s the question that many people are asking after the release of new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). The data, collected between the years 1999 and 2012, provides annual numbers on cancer rates by each individual state.
In dissecting the data, researchers and doctors might be able to draw inferences as to who is at higher risk for a certain type of cancer and why. For cancers like mesothelioma, which are often caused by specific physical “triggers” or environmental conditions, this kind of research can be very valuable.
Maine’s High Rate of Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used in the production of many building and industrial products because of its natural strength and resistance to fire. Part of the public health threat is that these building products and industrial relics are still in many residential and commercial buildings today. That’s one reason why it’s important to understand risks around developing mesothelioma, and how to best protect the public from it.
The CDC’s state and regional data on mesothelioma incidence rates support some of the things we already know about this deadly cancer, and provide many new clues as well.
One of the most significant findings, in combing through the 2012 data, is that Maine residents have the highest mesothelioma rates out of residents in any U.S. state. Maine’s rate per 100,000 residents is 1.9 – and the national average is much lower.
So why does Maine have more cases of this rare and deadly cancer?
One thing researchers know about asbestos is that, in the years before it became regulated in the 1970s, the deadly mineral fiber was often used in different types of shipbuilding materials, such as boiler insulation, turbine parts, and pump equipment. Asbestos was used in other transportation industries, as well, including trains and railroads, and in car parts – but the shipbuilding industry has made extensive use of asbestos over the years. A resource from the U.S. National Library of Medicine shows that:
- S. use of industrial asbestos boomed during the WWII years
- Asbestos was used for gaskets, insulation, and tape for submarines and ships
- S. companies actually began to stockpile asbestos in 1939 due to a worldwide shortage
Researchers also know that a lot of WWII shipbuilding was done in Maine. The U.S. military set up emergency shipyards throughout the war years in areas like Portland, Maine, specifically to develop ships for troop transport.
What the Maine data shows, then, is further support for the link between shipyard exposure to asbestos and mesothelioma.
Another risk factor hinted at in CDC data goes along with shipbuilding. Maine leads the country in rate of enlistment, with over 7 active duty military personnel per 1000 residents. The current idea of Maine as a “military state” is also tied to its major role in WWII operations. Just as there are many enlisted citizens in Maine today, there were many in the state in the 1940s working on ships and in other kinds of military installations.
At the same time, it’s well known that many of those who suffer from mesothelioma were exposed in the military: Although military veterans are just 8% of the general population, 30% of mesothelioma victims served in the military.
Top 6 High-Risk States
In addition to Maine, 2 more of the top 6 states for mesothelioma-risk are coastal states in the New England area. Further, 5 of the top 6 states are coastal states with histories of shipbuilding. The CDC’s 2012 study identifies these states as those with the highest risk for mesothelioma:
- Maine (1.9)
- Connecticut (1.3)
- Washington (1.3)
- Rhode Island (1.2)
- Illinois (1.2)
- Louisiana (1.2)
In addition, other mid-Atlantic coastal states known for shipbuilding show high rates of mesothelioma as well; for instance, Virginia, with major shipyards in Norfolk and surrounding port cities, has a risk factor of 1.0.
A 2009 CDC study on malignant mesothelioma mortality from 1999-2005 shows that most of the lowest-risk states are either in the interior of the country, or in the American southwest.
The U.S. government has already identified over 100 U.S. military bases where asbestos has been a historical problem. These formal reports also show the link between military duty and mesothelioma.
Cancer can affect everyone, and asbestos exposure happens all over the country, but these numbers help us to learn a little more about risk and how to be more vigilant about keeping people away from hazardous asbestos.