Study: Asbestos deaths in Allegheny County, Pa. much higher than national average
July 6, 2015 12:00 AM
Charly TriballeauAFP/Getty Images
Allegheny County had an average of about 107 asbestos-related deaths a year for the 15 years studied, the highest of any county in the state.
By Don Hopey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Asbestos continues to kill residents of Allegheny County and Pennsylvania at rates much higher than the national average and in greater numbers nationally than previously thought, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group Action Fund.
The report found that an estimated 14,216 people died from asbestos-related diseases from 1999 to 2013 in Pennsylvania, and the state is one of six — along with Maine, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware and Montana — that have asbestos-related death rates 50 to 100 percent above the national average.
Allegheny County had an average of about 107 asbestos-related deaths a year for the 15 years studied, the highest of any county in the state. And 28 of the state’s 67 counties have death rates for asbestos four to 13 times the national average, the study found.
“The death rates are high in areas of the country where people were exposed in industries that used asbestos,” said Sonya Lunder, senior analyst for Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit public health advocacy organization. “That includes Montana, where it was mined; in Utah, where it’s naturally occurring in rocks; in shipyards, ship-building ports, the building trades and the steel industry.”
Maps released with last week’s report show higher mortality rates throughout the Northeast shipbuilding regions, mid-Atlantic “Rust Belt” and around defense industry sites.
“We are the largest industrial area in an industrial state, so it’s not a great surprise that we have the largest number of deaths from asbestosis and lung cancer,” said Luann Brink, an epidemiologist with the Allegheny County Health Department. “But you need to remember that the deaths are caused by asbestos exposure 20, even 40 years ago and don’t reflect current, much more limited exposure.”
Ms. Brink said the Health Department regulates public asbestos exposure through its Asbestos Abatement Program, a permitting and inspection program that seeks to contain airborne asbestos during removal and building demolitions.
Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, was once extensively used as insulation, a variety of flame retardant building materials, a cement additive, and, ironically, cigarette filters. Homes and buildings built before 1980 almost all contain asbestos building materials, including roofing shingles, insulation, tile and wiring. It is classified as a hazardous air pollutant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Prolonged exposure and inhalation of airborne asbestos fibers, especially worker exposure, can cause asbestosis, a serious and often fatal respiratory disease, lung cancers, and mesothelioma, a rare cancer that occurs in the lungs, abdomen and around the heart, and is almost always related to asbestos exposure. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, plumbers, pipe fitters, steam fitters, electricians and construction workers are the most vulnerable to asbestos-related diseases.
But it often takes 20, 30 or even 50 years for the diseases to kill, earning asbestos the title of “the hidden killer.” Wives and children of those workers who were exposed to asbestos fibers on their work clothes also are at increased risk.
The mortality estimates in the study are about 20 percent to 50 percent higher than previous estimates. The study was the first to use death records from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a mortality projection formula developed by researchers at the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Another Environmental Working Group report in May found that 12,000 to 15,000 Americans die each year due to asbestos-related diseases and lung cancers, higher than previous CDC estimates of 10,000 a year.
Asbestos is banned in more than 50 countries, but not in the U.S., where efforts to do so failed in 1989. And while it is no longer manufactured in the U.S., it is imported and still used in a variety of construction materials, vehicle brake pads and roof shingles, though the amount of asbestos in the products is limited.
The report was issued as Congress considers two bills, one that will put roadblocks and additional paperwork burdens on those with asbestos-related diseases and cancers who seek compensation from trust funds established by industry to avoid litigation, said Alex Formuzis, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group.
He said the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act, backed by companies that used asbestos or have liabilities related to its use, would require disclosure of personal medical information by victims of asbestos exposure and increase processing and reporting costs.
“It would run out the clock on dying asbestos victims before they can receive compensation for their health problems,” Mr. Formuzis said.
The other bill, the Reducing Exposure to Asbestos Database Act, would require the EPA to create an online database listing products containing asbestos and where the public might be exposed to them.
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