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Asbestos Deaths Remain A Public Health Concern, CDC Finds

Amianthus, a variety of asbestos. Exposure to the fibers can cause mesothelioma, a cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen.
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Getty Images/DeAgostini
Amianthus, a variety of asbestos. Exposure to the fibers can cause mesothelioma, a cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen.

People are still dying of cancer linked to asbestos, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says, despite decades of regulations meant to limit dangerous exposure.

Starting in 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has regulated how much asbestos workers can be exposed to, because it contains tiny fibers that can cause lung disease or cancer if they are swallowed or inhaled.

The Environmental Protection Agency regulates asbestos too, setting requirements for inspecting, demolishing and renovating buildings that contain materials made with asbestos, like insulation, vinyl tiles, roofing, shingles and paint.

But, a recent CDC analysis found that thousands of people are still dying each year from a type of cancer called malignant mesothelioma that is associated with inhaling asbestos fibers, even briefly or in small amounts. Even after decades of regulation, between 1999 and 2015 there were 45,221 mesothelioma deaths in the U.S. The majority of those who died were men.

The greatest increase is among people over 85 years old, who were likely exposed to asbestos many years ago. It can take anywhere from two to seven decades for mesothelioma to develop after a person inhales asbestos fibers. And early deaths among people 35 to 65 are down overall.

But, investigators say, the fact that people younger than 55 are still dying of a disease linked to asbestos means that workers are still being exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos despite federal regulations.

One source is asbestos that was originally installed years ago, and gets stirred up during a building renovation or a demolition project. People exposed in this way are sometimes referred to as the "third wave" of people with asbestos disease, as we have reported. The first two waves were asbestos miners and manufacturers, and then tradesmen, such as pipe fitters or shipbuilders.

For example, the CDC researchers note that although there appears to be a general decline in asbestos on worksites between 1979 and 2003, "20 percent of air samples collected in the construc­tion industry in 2003 for compliance purposes exceeded the OSHA permissible exposure limit [for asbestos]."

And asbestos is still being used in new products. A report on the findings published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, notes "Asbestos production stopped in the United States in 2002, but it is imported into the country to produce chemicals used in manufacturing common items such as soap, fertilizers, and alkaline batteries."

More than 350 metric tons of the mineral were used in 2015 in the U.S., according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The CDC analysis also found that mesothelioma deaths were not evenly distributed across the country, despite the fact that the material is regulated at the federal level.

It is difficult to say why some states seem to have higher rates of death associated with asbestos. The authors note that, because the analysis is based on death certificate data, it does not necessarily mean that more people are being exposed to asbestos in states with high rates of mesothelioma deaths, although that is possible. Alternatively, people may have been exposed to asbestos in a different state than the one where they eventually died.

But the overall number of deaths nationally is concerning. "The continuing occurrence of malignant mesothelioma deaths underscores the need for maintaining asbestos exposure prevention efforts and for ongoing surveillance," the authors write.

For homeowners and consumers who are concerned about asbestos, the EPA has guidelines about how to identify asbestos products and how to have the material safely removed during a renovation.

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
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