Mesothelioma Death Rates Still Increasing

The July 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) contains an article analyzing the 1999 to 2005 death rate from mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung caused by exposure to asbestos. The article is based on a report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 18,068 deaths attributed to mesothelioma were reported during that time period, with an increase from 2,482 deaths in 1999, to 2,704 in 2005. The JAMA article recommends that physicians should document the occupational history of all patients who are suspected to have and are confirmed to have mesothelioma.

The CDC report also notes that the use of asbestos-containing products in the United States peaked in 1973. However, although asbestos is no longer mined in the United States and has been eliminated in the manufacture of many products, it is still being imported from other countries and used here in various construction and transportation products. In addition, as the report points out, if there are insufficient controls to protect workers and the community, there will continue to be occupational and environmental exposure to asbestos during remediation and demolition of existing asbestos in buildings. The article estimates that, because mesothelioma manifests itself 20-40 years after first exposure, the number of mesothelioma deaths will likely peak by 2010. However, there is a long road ahead, if one relies on the estimates of the Center for Disease Controls (CDC), which indicates that there will not be an expected return to background levels until approximately 2055.

The report identifies several industries and occupations where the level of deaths associated with mesothelioma were higher than for the general population. These include workers involved with

ship and boat building and repair;
workers involved in industrial and miscellaneous chemicals production;
petroleum refining workers; electric light and power workers;
construction trades, including plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters;
mechanical engineers;
electricians and
elementary school teachers.

The report further points out that despite regulatory action to control occupational exposure to asbestos, in 2003, 20% of air samples collected in the construction industry exceeded the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations permissible exposure limits. And shockingly, despite the incredible depth of knowledge regarding the dangers of exposure to asbestos and the deadly diseases that can result, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis, the article estimates that there are possibly 1.3 million construction and general industry workers who are currently being exposed to asbestos in the United States.