Every 12 minutes, an American dies from an asbestos-related disease. That’s according to recent data from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which determined that in 2019 the United States saw more than 40,000 deaths caused by exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring fibrous mineral that for centuries was mined from the earth, processed and refined in manufacturing plants around the country, and then incorporated into products sold to American businesses, the U.S. military, and the general public.
With its unique organic properties — it’s lightweight, durable, and fire- and heat-resistant — asbestos was hailed by dozens of industries as a “miracle mineral.” As such, the mineral was used in thousands of commercial applications.
The problem, of course, was that asbestos was — and is — a human carcinogen. And while the companies that profited from asbestos knew the health risks the mineral posed to both their workers and the general public, they continued to use asbestos because it was abundant, cheap to mine, and highly profitable. These companies concealed their knowledge of the health risks and tried desperately to stop such information from being released to the public.
When their deceit was eventually uncovered, and news of asbestos’s toxicity became widespread public knowledge, it was far too late — asbestos was everywhere: in automobiles, ships, airplanes, houses, schools, public and private buildings, military bases, and countless consumer products from hairdryers to flooring tiles.
Today, while new uses of asbestos have largely been limited by federal agencies, so-called “legacy” asbestos remains a lurking danger in millions of structures built before the 1980s. In addition to legacy asbestos, imports of asbestos continue in the United States, even while most of the developed world has outlawed all uses of asbestos.
It’s these factors and more that lead to such a high number of asbestos-related deaths in the United States each year.
Asbestos-Related-Death Estimates Continue to Rise
For many years, the annual death toll from asbestos was thought to be around 12,000-15,000 in the United States. This figure was determined by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization that aims to educate and generate awareness of preventable environmental hazards so that Americans can make healthier, more informed decisions.
In 2018, the International Commission of Occupational Health (ICOH) estimated that 39,275 deaths in the United States were caused by asbestos.
The newest figure of 40,764 deaths, from IHME, a University of Washington-based research center, is derived from a comprehensive examination of death certificates that indicate asbestos exposure as a contributing factor to a person’s death.
Asbestos can trigger several life-threatening diseases, including:
- Mesothelioma: Caused exclusively by asbestos exposure, mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer that develops in the thin membrane that lines the lungs, heart, and abdomen.
- Asbestos Lung Cancer: Many people associate lung cancer with smoking, and rightly so, but the disease can also be caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers.
- Asbestosis: The most common illness caused by asbestos exposure is asbestosis, in which scar tissue develops on a person’s lungs, ultimately limiting airflow. The symptoms of asbestosis can be fatal.
In addition to the notable diseases indicated above, asbestos can also cause the development of pleural effusions, pleural plaques, neoplasms, and other illnesses.
Modern Factors Contributing to Asbestos-Related Deaths
Referred to by some as the “third wave” of asbestos-related diseases, the current rise in asbestos-related deaths may in part be attributed to the demolition and renovation of houses, buildings, and other structures that were built with asbestos-containing construction materials.
As these older buildings get damaged, torn down, and/or rebuilt, the asbestos-containing products inside can be disturbed, releasing asbestos fibers into the air and presenting a health hazard.
‘Third Wave’ of Asbestos Exposure
The first wave of asbestos-related diseases killed asbestos miners, millers, and manufacturing workers.
The second wave killed those who worked directly with asbestos-containing products to help build and repair American infrastructure: construction workers, carpenters, insulators, shipbuilders, and welders, among others.
The third wave largely affects those in the construction business, especially those involved in demolition and renovation, as well as those involved in asbestos abatement.
So-called “legacy” asbestos refers to the asbestos-containing products/materials that remain inside of older homes, buildings, and facilities. Even if these structures go un-demolished or un-renovated, there is still the threat of asbestos-containing products breaking down over time. When products containing legacy asbestos break down, fibers can be released into the air and inhaled by anybody nearby.
It’s worth noting that while asbestos imports into the United States have drastically decreased since the early- and mid-20th century, the mineral is still being imported into the United States every single year — due largely to the fact that asbestos remains legal for use in the United States.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. imports of asbestos peaked under President Trump, more than doubling from 332 metric tons in 2017 to 750 metric tons in 2018.
Following backlash from public health organizations, asbestos imports decreased in 2019 to 172 metric tons.
An Asbestos Ban Is Long Overdue
In the year 2021, when the human health hazards of asbestos have been known for well over a century, it’s hard to believe that asbestos remains legal and available for use in the United States. On top of that, little has been done during the last several decades by the federal government to recognize and actively combat the death toll caused by asbestos.
Meanwhile, nearly 70 countries worldwide, including Canada and the entire European Union, have banned all imports and uses of asbestos outright. Yet, the USGS shows that 300 metric tons of raw asbestos were imported into the United States in 2020 — a 74% increase from 2019.
While an outright ban on imports and use of asbestos can neither bring back the loved ones who were killed by it nor eliminate the legacy asbestos left behind in countless buildings and structures, it is a crucial first step toward protecting the health of Americans in the future.
So long as asbestos remains legal in the United States, Americans can only expect the death toll to continue to climb.