When people picture the city of Buffalo, they maybe envision the city’s die-hard sports fans, heavy industry, and the region’s famed spicy chicken wings. Most people don’t associate the city with one of its less glamorous qualities: people dying from exposure to asbestos.
Buffalo and the surrounding region in New York state are reporting some of the highest mortality rates in the country related to asbestos exposure.
According to a recent study by the Environmental Working Group Action Fund, a national environmental lobbying organization, Niagara County’s asbestos death rate is almost 3 times higher than state and national averages.
A Closer Look at the Numbers
EWG Action Fund analyzed death reports from the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention between (CDC) 1999 and 2013.
During this 14-year period, New York state’s annual asbestos-related death rate was 4.4 deaths per 100,000 people, while the national rate was 4.9. These figures pale in comparison to those from certain counties in the greater Buffalo region. In Niagara County alone, the number was 14.5 annual deaths per 100,000 people. In nearby Cattaraugus County, the asbestos death rate was 11.6. Erie County had a rate of 8.1, about 65 percent higher than the national average.
In these 3 counties, 1,749 people died from asbestos-triggered diseases between 1999 and 2013. The fatal ailments directly linked to exposure to asbestos are: asbestosis, a horribly painful scarring of the lungs caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers; mesothelioma, a rare and incurable cancer whose primary cause is asbestos exposure; and lung cancer, many forms of which (besides mesothelioma) can be caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. EWG Action Fund estimates that “many more people die of asbestos-related lung cancer than from mesothelioma or asbestosis.”
A Glance into America’s “Asbestos Alley”
Environmental Working Group spokesman Alex Formuzis coined the term “Asbestos Alley” to describe the Niagara-Erie-Cattaraugus region surrounding the city of Buffalo due to the area’s dramatically elevated numbers of men and women killed by asbestos exposure.
The region was an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse for much of the 20th Century. Many of the area’s industries worked with asbestos extensively before the 1980s, when asbestos use began to decline sharply as a result of growing awareness surrounding the deadly mineral.
Because of asbestos’s reputation in the manufacturing industry as a “miracle mineral” – one that could resist heat and fire, and proved incredibly durable – it was the material of choice during the 1900s in the steel, auto, paper, pulp, mining, and chemical-production industries.
All of these industries were prominent in the Buffalo region during the previous century.
Lackawanna Steel Company, located in Buffalo, was at one time the largest steel factory in the world. It employed tens of thousands of workers for decades. Another major manufacturer in the region is General Motors’ Tonawanda Engine factory, where many of the engines for GM are built.
Both companies have been named responsible for causing thousands of workers to become ill with asbestos-related diseases. Furthermore, asbestos was widely used in home construction in the area. According to Cattaraugus County Public Health Director Dr. Kevin Watkins, houses in southern New York state are full of asbestos insulation. Dr. Watkins recommends that carpenters and other workers who might work around the insulation and roofing of older homes wear respirators and protective equipment.
In regard to the shocking trend of people in the greater Buffalo area dying from asbestos-linked diseases, Dr. Watkins was not optimistic about the future.
“There are lots of old homes in the county, and industries are often lined with it,” Watkins said. “Until we build some newer buildings, it’s going to be some time before we see this trend go down.”
An Unsettling Survey
EWG Action Fund’s survey revealed that several other areas around the U.S. have suffered a similar fate as the greater Buffalo region. Outside of New York, other states in the “Rust Belt” such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio have areas within their borders that produce alarmingly high asbestos-related mortality rates.
Jefferson County, Ohio, for example, has an asbestos-linked death rate of 20.9 per 100,000 people. Although Jefferson County’s shocking asbestos death rate may be partially attributed to its smaller population, another factor is the county’s proximity to the former industrial center of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, the counties surrounding Pittsburgh – Beaver (11.9), Lawrence (11.5), and Butler (11.3) – also have unusually high asbestos-related mortality rates.
And this shouldn’t be a surprise. As most Americans know – and especially football fans – Pittsburgh once had a booming steel industry. Other than these “rusting” industrial centers, areas where asbestos was formerly mined, of course, exhibit populations disproportionately affected by asbestos-triggered diseases. Most notably, the small city of Libby, Montana was once the sight of a large asbestos mine owned by W.R. Grace & Co. Between 1999 and 2013, Lincoln County (where Libby is located) had an unbelievable asbestos-related death rate of 66.6 deaths per 100,000 people.
Lincoln County, MT, like the counties of Niagara, Erie, and Cattaraugus in western New York, are plagued by the painful and deadly diseases caused by asbestos. Because these tragic statistical trends will most likely not reverse any time soon, we can only hope that the men and women of these areas can receive proper medical attention, financial compensation, and justice before their lives are needlessly cut short.