Each year, nearly 40,000 Americans die often painful, protracted deaths from diseases caused by asbestos. These deaths occur in firefighters, police officers, construction workers, miners, military veterans, shipyard workers, and maintenance workers whose exposures to asbestos are primarily occupational. Death also occurs in partners and children of such workers, whose only exposures to asbestos were from dust on clothing brought home from work by a family member. In the United States, treatment of asbestos-related diseases — including malignant mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, and ovarian cancer1 — costs hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
The health hazards of asbestos were recognized in the early 20th century, but this information did not become widespread until a landmark 1964 publication documented the association between asbestos exposure and cancer.2 In the years after that report, the amount of asbestos used in the United States fell by more than 99% — from more than 650,000 metric tons in 19633 to roughly 750 metric tons in 2018, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The main drivers of this decline have been federal regulations that banned and restricted many uses of asbestos and aggressive litigation on behalf of injured workers against companies that produced and used asbestos with full knowledge of its dangers.
Most asbestos-related deaths in the United States today are caused either by cancers of long latency that resulted from exposures decades ago or by more recent exposures to asbestos installed long ago in the form of insulation, pipe wrapping, roofing tiles, and siding in thousands of office buildings, schools, and homes. The populations at greatest risk for exposure to legacy asbestos are firefighters, maintenance workers, and people employed in the construction and demolition industries. Great diligence is required of employers and federal regulators to protect these high-risk workers against occupational asbestos exposures.
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