The primary statistic on mesothelioma is that asbestos is the only known cause of the disease. Microscopic asbestos fibers that are given off by deteriorating asbestos products or asbestos that is being torn, cut or sanded can be inhaled or ingested by construction workers and others. Those fibers can eventually cause mesothelioma.
The rule of thumb on mesothelioma is that it’s a rare disease, with new diagnoses in the United States averaging 2,500 to 3,000 annually. That is a somewhat misleading figure, however, given the number of people whose health and lives have been ruined by asbestos exposure. The incidence of malignant mesothelioma increased from the 1970s to the 1990s and is now believed to have stabilized. This impacts men about four times more often than women, and about 75% of those who develop the disease are over 65 years old. A diagnosis in someone under the age of fifty is rare.
The reason for the impact on older people is that during the late 1970s asbestos had been recognized as a carcinogen; products utilizing the mineral were banned, for a period, and most manufacturers eliminated its use as a raw material. Tens of millions of buildings, industrial installations, power plants, ships, planes, and trains removed asbestos insulation and other products, because on the job exposure was the primary source of asbestos exposure.
Mesothelioma Latency Statistics
Asbestos related diseases have a very long latency period. Symptoms do not appear and the disease is usually not diagnosed until thirty to fifty years have passed after the asbestos exposure has occurred. For that reason people in their retirement years tend to develop the disease, and many who were working in the latter half of the 20th Century are just now getting sick.
Asbestosis is a non-malignant disease caused by scarring of the internal lung tissue created by the presence inhaled asbestos fibers. The lung tissue grows fibrous and stiff over time, reducing lung capacity and the ability to engage in physical exertion. The latency period for asbestosis is twenty five to forty years.
Mesothelioma Death Statistics
Estimating the number of deaths caused by asbestos has been a sensitive political issue for years because of the hundreds of thousands of lawsuits brought over asbestos exposure. But asbestos was an immensely popular industrial material for a wide range of products, growing increasingly popular as America mechanized through the first three quarters of the 20th Century. Workers that were exposed to it during the course of those years developed asbestosis and mesothelioma because asbestos exposure in dozens of industries was treated casually. See a breakdown of mesothelioma deaths by industry for an idea of the types of workers that were at risk for asbestos exposure.
Government tracking of mesothelioma deaths did not begin until 1999. Prior to that there is no official record of deaths, only estimates based on the cause of death put on death certificates, which often was a physician simply assuming that a pleural disease was mesothelioma. Often those cases were misdiagnosed as lung cancer. A survey done by a private organization showed 935 mesothelioma deaths reported in 1998. In 1999, the first year of the federal tracking project, 2,343 deaths were reported. That suggests a massive underestimation of asbestos-caused deaths based on old medical diagnoses. The private survey came up with a figure of 43,073 mesothelioma and asbestosis deaths between 1979 through 2001. Those figures do not include asbestos lung cancer, for which no statistics are available at all. According to the federal tracking statistics, over 18,000 people died of mesothelioma in the five year period between 1999 and 2004. The actual figure for deaths during the preceding twenty years clearly is closer to six figures.
A Lethal Disease
Mesothelioma is considered to be a fatal disease. There is no known cure for it. The prognosis depends on many factors, the most important of which is early detection. The health of the patient is important as well, and the great majority of mesothelioma patients are in their retirement years. While there have been many clinical trials for various treatment modalities, those that have been found to be successful have increased survival times for diagnosed patients by mere months. According to the National Cancer Institute the average period of survival after diagnosis is sixteen months for a normal patient, and five months for someone with an advanced case or poor health.
The Continuing Threat of Mesothelioma Cancer
In the United States today the principal threat for asbestos exposure comes from older buildings, heating systems, engines and industrial sites where asbestos contamination comes from old insulation materials, roofing, siding, gaskets, pump packing material or other asbestos products. There are still some asbestos products on the market in this country, notably brake shoes for autos. During the 20th Century an estimated 27 million workers were exposed to asbestos. Today the threat lives on for approximately 1.3 million construction workers, HVAC workers, brake repair technicians and others who are exposed to old or worn asbestos products.
- http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_4_1X_What_are_the_key_statistics_for_malignant_mesothelioma_29.asp?sitearea=, American Cancer Society
- http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/asbestos, National Cancer Institute
- http://www.epa.gov/oppt/asbestos/pubs/asbe.pdf, Environmental Protection Agency
- http://www.ewg.org/sites/asbestos/facts/, Environmental Working Group
- http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/malignantmesothelioma/HealthProfessional/page2, National Cancer Institute
- http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/asbestos/risk2.html – Who is at Risk, The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry