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Asbestos deaths increase; many victims exposed long ago

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Exposure to asbestos as far back as the 1930s is leaving a deadly legacy across the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of asbestosis deaths increased from 77 in 1968 to 1,493 in 2000 and the toll is expected to continue climbing over the next decade.

This recent rise is not due to increased exposure to asbestos, but because many of those exposed in the 1950s and 1960s, the peak of asbestos use in the United States, are dying.

Michael Attfield, an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an arm of the CDC, said that the rise in asbestosis deaths reflects the latency period from the time of exposure to the time of death.

"We are seeing the legacy of past exposure," he said. Attfield, who works for the Division of Respiratory Disease Studies at NIOSH, said that it can take up to 40 years for an asbestosis sufferer to die.

Asbestosis, a disease caused by the breathing of asbestos fibers, has no effective treatment.

When asbestos fibers enter the lungs, they can cause scaring, which in turn makes the lungs stiff and unable to transfer oxygen effectively to the blood. This can lead to frequent lung infections and heart or respiratory failure.

In 1998, asbestosis surpassed coal workers' pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, as the leading cause of occupational death due to inhalation.

The use of asbestos in insulation, fireproofing materials, automotive brakes, textile products, cement and wallboard materials spread in the 1930s and through World War II, peaking in the 1950s.

Higher awareness of asbestos, and stricter regulations and standards over the use of asbestos in the late 1970s, saw a rapid drop in asbestos exposure.

"It does not mean that we have eliminated the disease," said Attfield.

Fred Blosser, public affairs officer for NIOSH, said that although safety regulations control the use of asbestos, construction and factory workers are still high risk groups for asbestos exposure. "We hope that current safety standards will let us see a leveling-off or reduction of the trend," Blosser said.

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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