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Asbestos-related deaths in Allegheny County surpass national average

Recent media coverage of the Environmental Working Group Action Fund’s interactive map highlighting the number of asbestos deaths in the United States brings to light many issues we’re reminded of every day. As asbestos attorneys, we see just how devastating the effects can be through our clients and their families.

This reality hits home in Allegheny County. In Monday’s Post-Gazette, Don Hopey wrote about the findings in an article titled “Study: Asbestos deaths in Allegheny County, Pa. much higher than national average.” Because of the area’s history in industry, especially with steel mills, the residents have higher than the national average chances of developing and dying from an asbestos-related disease.

Pennsylvania is one of six states with asbestos-related death rates that are 50 to 100 percent above the national average. From 1999 to 2013, an estimated 14,216 people died as a result of their exposure. Out of PA’s 67 counties, almost half have rates four to 13 times higher than the national average, led by Allegheny County. On the whole, this study concluded the actual mortality rates related to asbestos exposure are likely 20 to 50 percent higher than previous estimates at 12,000 to 15,000 deaths each year.

Hopey’s article addressed several other important issues: asbestos remains a damaging force; asbestos-related death rates have long been underestimated; and the deadly fiber still isn’t banned in the United States.

As a naturally occurring mineral, asbestos’ resistance to heat caused it to be largely used as insulation as well as other building materials. Prior to 1980, many houses contained some sort of asbestos product, whether it was shingles, tile, roofing or insulation.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that asbestos began to be regulated in the workplace, but the use continued on for years after. We regularly come across pictures of workers having lunch sitting next to open boxes of asbestos products well into the 1970s.  The callous disregard company memos show industry had for their workers’ exposure risk is frightening and depressing.

An internal memo from 1966 surmised a solution to the “problem” of asbestos exposure as “why not die from it. There’s got to be some cause.”

As industry sought to ignore the cause, physicians often simply missed the connection. Without a proper work history, a patient’s diagnosis of lung cancer might not be tied to their asbestos exposure. This is especially true of smokers, despite the incredibly intensifying affects of asbestos exposure on top of cigarette smoking.

Whether facts about asbestos were ignored, dismissed or simply not widely known, asbestos use has been and continues to be used in the US.

We are hopeful that the Reducing Exposure to Asbestos Database (READ) Act will in fact provide transparency regarding asbestos exposure risks currently lacking in the US. The kind of important and impactful transparency that benefits individuals and communities, opposed to the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act.

Studies like that of the EWG not only inform and educate, but will hopefully lead to a ban on asbestos use in the US. Asbestos has been allowed to do too much damage for far too long.