Asbestos was introduced to the American industrial scene in the 1850s by H.W. Johns, who went on to found major industrial manufacturer Johns Manville. That company was also among the first to go bankrupt under a blizzard of asbestos personal injury lawsuits. Asbestos use steadily increased throughout the 20th century, peaking in the 1960s and phasing out beginning in the 1970s, although in 1973 the country used 813,000 metric tons of it. Before it was over there were over 3,000 asbestos products in use in the United States.
Asbestos was so widely used that tens of millions of workers were exposed to it on the job or worked with it as part of their professions. The EPA estimate is that between 1940 and 1980 twenty seven million American workers were exposed to asbestos on the job. Despite the virtual elimination of asbestos from today’s industrial products, the dangers remain because of its widespread use. Estimates are that asbestos containing materials remain in most of the nation's approximately 107,000 primary and secondary schools and 733,000 public and commercial buildings.
Asbestos Exposure Death Statistics
It’s impossible to know how many people have succumbed to asbestos-related diseases in the U.S. for a number of reasons. The most lethal asbestos related disease, malignant mesothelioma, is sufficiently rare that it was undoubtedly misdiagnosed as lung cancer or some other fatal disease for many decades during the 20th century. Asbestosis and asbestos lung cancer are also fatal, but were not always diagnosed as asbestos related diseases. According to the American Thoracic Society “asbestos has been the largest cause of occupational cancer in the United States and a significant cause of disease and disability from nonmalignant disease.”
One epidemiological estimate sets the number of asbestos related deaths in the U.S. at over 200,000 during the half century between 1980 and 2030. That estimate was made almost thirty years ago and seems somewhat conservative today given the acceleration in diagnoses over the past twenty years. The federal government began tracking mesothelioma deaths in 1999 and reported in 2005 that 18,068 had been reported in the preceding six years. That does not take into account the deaths from asbestosis or asbestos lung cancer. Asbestosis deaths are projected to be a total of 29,667 during the period 2005 – 2027; an average of 1,290 per year.
One of the highest risk jobs for asbestos exposure in the 20th century was working in a shipyard. The amount of asbestos used as insulation in engine rooms, piping systems, on boilers and in superstructures took its toll, particularly during World War II. One report suggests that there will be an aggregate 100,000 deaths from asbestos related diseases among sailors and shipyard workers alone. There were 4.3 million shipyard workers during World War II.
Current Asbestos Exposure Facts
Asbestos has not gone away, as illustrated by the number of buildings where it may still be found. About 1.3 million workers in the U.S. are still subjected to asbestos exposure on the job today. New diagnoses for mesothelioma have dropped to between 2,000 and 3,000 per year and appear to have reached a plateau or close to it. It remains a lethal disease, however, with an average survival period after diagnosis of four to eighteen months depending on the type of mesothelioma and the stage at which mesothelioma is diagnosed.
- National Toxicology Program, U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/eleventh/profiles/s016asbe.pdf
- EPA Region Four, http://www.epa.gov/region4/air/asbestos/inform.htm
- Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/asbestos/respiratory_changes2.html
- American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Nicholson et al, 1982, http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/114053573/abstract
- Centers for Disease Control, http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5815a3.htm
- Medline, Sam Chun MD, http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/352900-overview
- The Virginia Pilot, May 6, 2001, Bill Burke, http://web.archive.org/web/20071012143526/http:/hamptonroads.com/pilotonline/special/asbestos/intro.html
- OSHA, U.S. Department of Labor, http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/
- National Cancer Institute, http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Sites-Types/mesothelioma
- American Cancer Society, http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/MalignantMesothelioma/OverviewGuide/malignant-mesothelioma-overview-survival-rates