Straight Talk about Mesothelioma, a blog series created by Michael T. Milano, M.D., Ph.D., a radiation oncology specialist, as a resource for mesothelioma patients and their loved ones.
Over the last several decades, the U.S. has seen thousands of cases and deaths related to asbestos exposure. The dangerous mineral, which causes irreversible damage to the body when inhaled, asbestos kills 12,000 to 15,000 Americans annually. Mesothelioma, a cancer caused exclusively by asbestos, contributes to many of these untimely deaths and an additional 3,000 diagnoses every year.
Unfortunately, this number is unlikely to shrink any time soon. A study released this year showed mesothelioma cases and deaths continue to rise and show no signs of slowing. Given that asbestos use began to decline about 4 decades ago, how could this be?
Mesothelioma Deaths Still on the Rise
In a report on mesothelioma mortality, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded a total of 45,221 mesothelioma deaths between 1999 and 2015. In 1999, the annual death toll was 2,479, but by 2015 it had increased to 2,597.
Deaths increased for all ethnic groups, both sexes, and people aged 85 and above. This aligned with the CDC’s projections that mesothelioma deaths would increase until 2005. After a peak in 2005, deaths were supposed to decrease. But according to this report, mesothelioma is still affecting younger generations, aged 55 years or below, as much as ever.
The outlook is similar in Canada, once the world’s largest producer and exporter of asbestos. The Canadian government reported 560 new cases of mesothelioma in 2012, up from 276 in 1992. Mesothelioma incidence is high across the world, in fact. The highest rates are in Australia and Great Britain, where deaths are increasing more rapidly and aren’t expected to peak until 2030.
What Does the Data Suggest?
Mesothelioma has a long latency period, meaning its symptoms can take years to develop. Twenty to 50 years can pass between first exposure to asbestos and diagnosis. This explains why people are only now being diagnosed with mesothelioma, but presents an ongoing and apparently growing issue.
Also, in recent years, there has been an increase in use of CT scans for lung cancer screening. With more people in the general population undergoing CT imaging, there will, hopefully, be an increase in detection of mesothelioma in people who are either asymptomatic or whose difficulty breathing has been attributed to other causes.
The greatest rates of asbestos exposure occurred before 1970s, when the “miracle mineral” was popular for adding strength and durability to products in industries such as construction, automotive, and the military. Workers were unaware of its health risks. Evidence of lung scarring from asbestos inhalation first appeared in the early 1900s, but business continued as usual for companies focused more on profit than their employees’ health.
In 1973, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began prohibiting asbestos use and significantly (but not totally) reduced its impact. However, in its report, the CDC noted the continuing occurrence of mesothelioma among younger people suggests ongoing exposure to asbestos. In other words, despite past projections and prohibitions, asbestos may still be affecting those born since its decline.
To round off this disturbing information, the CDC suggested ramping up efforts to monitor and prevent asbestos exposure. However, while other countries have gone so far as to ban asbestos completely, the U.S. is slow to follow. While the toxic substance prevails, our best chance of mesothelioma prevention is increased public awareness.