Deaths from Asbestos Increasing, While Proposed Legislation Would Limit Aid to Its Victims

10,000 US Deaths Per Year From Asbestos Diseases

WASHINGTON, D.C.-March 12, 2004-Almost 10,000 deaths per year in the United States, or close to 30 deaths per day, are due to asbestos exposure, and the number may be increasing, according to a new study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The substance kills thousands more people than skin cancer, and nearly the number that are slain in assaults with firearms. One out of every 125 American men over the age of 50 dies from asbestosis, mesothelioma, or other asbestos diseases.

Despite this epidemic, the Senate is expected to meet in early April to reconsider a bill that would limit the rights of asbestos victims and bail out asbestos manufacturers. S.B. 1125 would set up a trust fund that provides inadequate compensation for those with asbestos diseases, while depriving them of access to the courts. Organized labor opposes S.B. 1125, as do some Democrats.

Over the next ten years, 100,000 Americans will die from mesothelioma, asbestosis, and asbestos-related lung cancer and gastrointestinal (GI) cancer, according to the EWG group. Critics of S.B. 1125 rightly ask what will happen if an asbestos trust fund runs out, and patients have nowhere to turn.

People develop asbestos diseases anywhere from ten to fifty years or more after they have been exposed to asbestos. We are still seeing the results of the major use of asbestos in the construction industry during the 1960s through the 1980s, both on workers and on family members who may have been exposed to asbestos brought home on the workers' clothing.

Asbestos Is Still With Us

Many mistakenly believe that asbestos has been banned in the United States. However, products containing asbestos range from potting soil to brake linings, pipeline wrap, and attic insulation. Older homes are riddled with asbestos in their roofing and insulation, posing a hazard when the substance falls into disrepair or is disturbed and becomes airborne. Car mechanics who work on asbestos-containing brakes risk asbestos exposure. Construction workers still deal with asbestos in building materials and structures. Recent government statistics provide this breakdown for asbestos use: roofing products (80%), gaskets (8%), friction products (4%) and other consumer products (8%) (U.S. Geological Survey, 2004).

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) summarizes the problem through its own admission "EPA does NOT track the manufacture, processing, or distribution in commerce of asbestos-containing products" (EPA Asbestos Material Ban Clarification, May 18, 1999). The agency suggests that consumers "inquire as to the presence of asbestos in a particular product." Do we really think that consumers will have the opportunity to do this?

EWG Recommends a Complete Ban on Asbestos

Instead, EWG recommends an immediate ban on asbestos. "This is the only way to put an end to the ongoing tragedy of asbestos illness and death," the report concludes. In 2003, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced legislation to ban asbestos, but it was defeated. A weakened version of Murray's bill was inserted into S.B. 1125 as a way to make it more attractive to its critics. This new asbestos ban would not apply to roofing cements, coatings, and mastics, even though roofing materials make up the bulk of asbestos products today. It also would allow an exemption for companies that have made unsuccessful attempts to develop nontoxic alternatives to asbestos in their products. This seemingly small exemption could become a wide loophole. Clearly, the addition of the "asbestos ban" should not rescue S.B. 1125, which is unfair to workers and consumers.

EWG rejects S.B. 1125 and any similar legislation, explaining that "Any solution to the asbestos issue must help, not hurt asbestos victims." It declares that a patient with an asbestos disease should not be required to give up the right to trial and legal representation. In addition to an immediate asbestos ban, EWG calls for national health screening of those exposed to asbestos, and better monitoring of the asbestos remediation industry, which it accuses of unsafe practices.

How the EWG Asbestos Study Was Conducted

The EWG study was based on government death certificates, statistics, and population studies from 1979 through 2001. Deaths from mesothelioma and asbestosis increased steadily during this period. About 1,200 gastrointestinal (GI) cancers per year were caused by asbestos. Estimates of lung cancer fatalities ranged from 5,000 to 10,000 per year.

Dr. Richard Lemen, a former director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, commented that the report results are "probably an underestimate" because some cases of mesothelioma and asbestosis still go undetected or are misdiagnosed (Scripps Howard News, March 3, 2004). Also, the government did not begin to track mesothelioma as a cause of death until 1999. The study authors relied partly on descriptions of illnesses that resembled mesothelioma, a process that leads to underreporting.

California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas were the states with the highest number of deaths from asbestosis and mesothelioma. In nine of the ten states with the highest rates, the number of combined mesothelioma and asbestosis fatalities increased every year. The five counties with the highest asbestos disease rates were Los Angeles, CA; Cook County, IL; Philadelphia County, PA; King County, WA; and Harris County, TX. For detailed information about fatalities in each state, see Government Data on Asbestos Mortalities.

A Shameful History of Asbestos Industry Deception

The EWG also reviewed documents showing that while asbestos fatalities were rising, industry officials and insurers were scampering to cover up the serious medical dangers caused by asbestos exposure. One report cites the "irrefutable association between asbestos and cancer" as well as "evidence that cancer and mesothelioma have developed in environmentally exposed groups, i.e., due to air pollution for groups living near asbestos plants and mines." (Philip Carey Manufacturing, 1964 internal memo from physician to company officials). None of this knowledge was made public, either to those living near asbestos plants or to workers.

Many internal memos from asbestos companies and their insurers go as far back as the 1930s and 1940s, including one from Exxon admitting that asbestos causes lung cancer. As early as 1931, a Metropolitan Life Insurance screening discovered a high rate of asbestosis among asbestos miners, but the company never published the study (See Insurers Knew About Asbestos Dangers.)

But perhaps the cavalier attitude toward asbestos is best expressed by this quote: "...if you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products, why not die from it?" (E.A. Martin, Director of Purchasing for Bendix Corporation, now a part of Honeywell, September 12, 1966).

Urge Your Representatives to Vote NO on S.B. 1125

Considering the shameful record of secrecy and deception practiced by asbestos companies and their insurers, it is not surprising that they are firmly backing S.B. 1125. Hoping to decrease the number of asbestos lawsuits and lower their own liability, insurers alone had spent $1.02 million by the end of last year to promote the bill (Rollcall, November 10, 2003). The Asbestos Alliance, a group representing both asbestos defendant companies and insurers has also lobbied for the bill.

Should you have any questions about asbestos diseases and your legal rights, please contact our asbestos attorneys with your concerns. We have been successfully handling asbestos litigation in California since 1984, and we are committed to helping asbestos victims and their families.