Asbestos Remains Key Public Health Threat

10,000 deaths expected annually for next 2 decades, report contends

THURSDAY, March 4, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The asbestos crisis is far from over and the United States can expect to see at least 10,000 asbestos-related deaths each year for the next two decades or so.

So says a new report released Thursday by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Action Fund in Washington, D.C. The report includes the first maps to disclose asbestos-related deaths on both the county and national levels since 1979. Los Angeles County in California and Cook County in Illinois top the list.

"After 15 years of working on these issues, I was absolutely stunned at the extent of mortality and diseases that are still caused by asbestos," EWG senior vice president Richard Wiles said at a news conference Thursday. "This rate of death appears to be increasing based on a review of federal mortality data maintained by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] from 1979 to 2001."

According to EWG, almost 30 million pounds of asbestos are used in United States communities each year, and more than a million Americans are exposed to the material through their jobs. Not only are workers affected, but consumers as well, EWG reports. The material can cause various forms of cancer, including lung cancer.

Richard Lemen, the retired deputy director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said at the same news conference: "We are in the midst of a public health crisis, a crisis that many people felt had gone away many, many years ago with the enactment of occupational and environmental laws to reduce exposure to asbestos in this country."

While there has been a definite reduction in its use, asbestos can still be found in many consumer products, Lemen added.

"You can still buy asbestos-containing brakes for automobiles. Hundreds of thousands of tons of asbestos are still in place in buildings, in sewer systems and water systems," he said. "Some 20 countries around the world have banned all uses of asbestos. The United States is not one of those countries."

A spokesman for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) told HealthDay that NIOSH actually records a smaller number of asbestos-related deaths, but that might have to do with how asbestos illnesses are defined.

Like EWG, NIOSH is seeing an upward trend for mortality, spokesman Fred Blosser said.

"We do see an increase in the number of deaths over the past 30 years that are linked with asbestos," Blosser added.

"Is asbestos still an occupational hazard for people in the workplace? The answer is yes," Blosser said. "This report highlights the fact that employers, employees and occupational health professionals still need to be vigilant about the potential for asbestos to cause people to become sick or to die."

At the press conference, EWG spokespeople criticized a bill currently before the U.S. Senate. The Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2003 would place restrictions on asbestos claims. According to Wiles, the bill would set up a national trust for asbestos victims. While that in itself sounds like a good idea, the fund is under-financed, would "sunset" after 27 years (meaning people who got sick after that time would be out of luck) and would prohibit lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers.

"This is driven by the notion that there is a wave of bankruptcies in America causing economic havoc that needs to be stopped and that is caused by rampant asbestos litigation," Wiles said.

In fact, Wiles added, companies who are technically called bankrupt are continuing to operate from a very favorable position.

"Our basic view is that it's possible that a trust fund could be part of a solution to this massive public health crisis of people dying and being injured by asbestos exposure," Wiles said. "But the current bill does not meet the basic requirements that every single person who is harmed by asbestos is to be fully taken care of and that we need to have an effort on a national scale to find those people."

He added, "Asbestos must be banned in all of its uses so that we can put an end to this tragedy that is afflicting people silently. If we don't ban it, now the tragedy will continue into the future."

The bill's emphasis on economics and bankruptcies is misplaced, said EWG representatives. "It is a public health crisis. It is not a crisis of people losing their jobs," Lemen said. "This is not a monetary crisis for companies, but it is a monetary crisis in the public health community, particularly for those victims who are still going to suffer from diseases long past my life time."

The Senate bill is considered "active legislation" and EWG predicts the Senate will be focusing on it in the next three to four weeks.

Margarita Tapia, a spokeswoman for the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the committee had not yet issued a response to the EWG report. She referred instead to remarks Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah) made Wednesday night in which he stated, "This is an absolutely vital issue for this country's civil justice system and most importantly, to our economy. We now have the opportunity to correct what has become a gross injustice against asbestos victims and the defendants who are relentlessly hailed into court despite having never manufactured nor sold a shred of asbestos fiber."

He continued, "Scores of companies with almost no connection to the problem have had to file for bankruptcy and hundreds of others live under the constant threat of insolvency from litigation."

The EWG report contested the severity of these bankruptcies. It also included postings of company documents showing that businesses and insurance companies worked together to keep the dangers of asbestos out of the public domain starting from more than 50 years ago. One 1949 Exxon memo linked asbestos to lung cancer, the report said.

Asbestos needs to be banned, EWG said, but, even if that happens, "we're going to still have disease for many, many decades," Lemen said.

"That's not counting hundreds of thousands who may not die but whose lives will be severely compromised and will incur significant costs," Wiles added.

More information

To view the asbestos report, visit EWG. To learn more about the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2003, visit the U.S. Senate.

SOURCES: March 4, 2004, Environmental Working Group news conference with Richard Wiles, senior vice president, EWG, Richard Lemen, M.D. Ph.D., deputy director (ret.), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; Margarita Tapia, spokeswoman, Senate Judiciary Committee, Washington, D.C.; Fred Blosser, spokesman, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Washington, D.C.; EWG asbestos report; March 3, 2004, statement by Sen Orrin Hatch, R-Utah
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