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Report Says Asbestos Deaths Growing into Epidemic

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More than 43,000 Americans have died from exposure to asbestos and 10,000 more people are dying each year in a silent crisis that is taking on epidemic dimensions, according to a new study.

Since 1979, at least 43,073 people have died from asbestos-related diseases - including at least 2626 in New York - according to the Washington, DC-based Environmental Working Group Action Fund, which analyzed federal mortality records.

The group predicts at least 100,000 more will die of asbestos diseases over the next decade.

The report also warned that more than 1 million people are still working in facilities that expose them to asbestos, while millions more continued to be threatened by asbestos in the everyday environment.

"As long as asbestos continues to be used in consumer products and remains available for dispersion in millions of buildings and homes ... it will continue to kill and injure thousands of innocent people for decades to come," the report said.

The study was released as U.S. Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is trying to rekindle an effort to end asbestos lawsuits and establish a $114 billion victims' fund supported by asbestos companies and insurers.

The Environmental Working Group opposes Frist's proposal, saying his plan is "grossly insufficient" and would deny justice to thousands who have yet to become ill.

The EWG said a trust fund should be part of the solution, but should contain at least $300 billion. The report noted that more than 400,000 asbestos-related claims are pending before federal and state courts.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral commonly used until the mid-1970s for thousands of industrial and consumer products, including concrete, shingles, wallboards, automotive brakes, kitchen appliances, blow-dryers, electric blankets, even crayons.

The federal government banned all new uses of asbestos in 1989 after the dangerous health effects were realized. However, the study reported that 30 million pounds of asbestos are still used in the United States each year and listed dozens of widely used consumer products that still contain it, including insulation, flooring, adhesives, roofing, construction materials and paint.

When inhaled, the tiny crystal-like fibers can cause cancers and other diseases, some of which can take 20-50 years to reveal themselves.

The EWG study singled out asbestos' two signature illnesses: mesothelioma, a rare type of lung cancer; and asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs. It found both have been steadily on the rise. The study was based on 25 years of data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Center for Health Statistics.

The study noted that the actual death toll since 1979 may be as high as 60,000 because until 1999 the government only estimated the number of deaths from mesothelioma. The mortality study did not include other lung and gastrointestinal cancers, which could push the death toll to nearly 230,000 over that time, the report said.

"This blew us away. We had no idea the mortality rate was this high," said Richard Wiles, the group's senior vice president.

"It is a silent epidemic that has affected every state, almost every county, in the country," Wiles said.

The CDC does not comment on outside studies but does consider asbestos exposure a serious health issue, a spokeswoman said. The CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has targeted 28 locations nationwide for asbestos study, including one in Weedsport, N.Y., 25 miles west of Syracuse.

Dr. Michael Lax, an asbestos expert and director of the occupational health clinic at the state's University Hospital in Syracuse, found the study's totals "kind of low," noting that previous studies have projected higher mortality rates.

"Think of how asbestos was used for years in thousands of products," he said. "The numbers of people exposed is in the tens of millions. The potential for illness is tremendous."

The state with the highest death toll from asbestos was California, where at least 4273 people have died since 1979. No state was untouched. Even Alaska had 46 deaths.

New York ranked fifth nationally. All 62 of the state's counties had at least one asbestos-related death, topped by Queens County, which had 289 deaths.

Of the nation's top 100 counties with asbestos deaths, 10 were in New York. Queens County was ranked ninth.

Spokesman William Van Slyke said the state Health Department was still reviewing the report but that "it doesn't meet the standard for an epidemic." This article was prepared by Cancer Weekly editors from staff and other reports. Copyright 2004, Cancer Weekly via &

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