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Asbestos Diseases Viewed As 'Epidemic'

Study finds 100,000 will die in 10 years

Mar 4, 2004 | Star Ledger

The United States is facing an "epidemic" of asbestos-caused diseases, with some 100,000 people expected to die in the next decade from their past exposure to the dangerous substance, according an analysis of health data by an environmental organization.

"Ten thousand Americans die each year a rate approaching 30 deaths per day from diseases caused by asbestos," said a report to be issued today by the Environmental Working Group Action Fund.

"Asbestos kills thousands more people than skin cancer each year, and nearly the number that are slain in assaults with firearms," said the environmental group.

The study comes as the Senate is preparing to debate legislation that would nullify tens of thousands of asbestos lawsuits and transfer all pending and future claims to a newly created $108 billion victims compensation fund financed by manufacturers and insurance companies.

The Senate is expected to take up this bill at the end of this month or in early April. The measure is backed by the business community, which is seeking to cap its liability and get out from under a flood of lawsuits, but it faces opposition from organized labor and trial lawyers who argue the fund will shortchange victims.

The report, based on an analysis of more than two decades of government mortality records and epidemiological studies, said the 20- to 50-year latency period for asbestos diseases means that a substantial portion of individuals exposed in the 1960s and 1970s are now just showing up.

"EWG Action Fund projects that over the next decade, four asbestos-related diseases mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer and gastrointestinal cancer will claim the lives of over 100,000 Americans," said the report.

"The epidemic is national in scope, affecting every state. And for every life claimed, many more will be compromised by an array of serious, if nonfatal, asbestos-caused illnesses," the report said.

The study notes that New Jersey was a prime destination for asbestos mined in Montana, with some 338,000 tons shipped to the state between 1948 and 1993 for use in factories such as the Johns Manville plant in Somerset County and W.R. Grace plants in Edgewater and Trenton.

The environmental group said the government data showed at least 2,775 people in New Jersey were killed by asbestos from 1979 to 2001, the sixth-highest total among the 50 states. It added that its research suggests the number of deaths could be as much as double that figure because of chronic misdiagnosis of asbestosis and mesothelioma and the absence of federal tracking for mesothelioma for nearly all the time period analyzed.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was once used widely in many industrial processes because of its fire-retardant and insulating properties. The report said in the mid-1970s, more than 3,000 consumer and industrial products contained asbestos, asbestos product factories polluted neighborhoods and workers were heavily exposed on the job.

When inhaled, asbestos fibers can cause lung disease and cancer. As a result, its use has been sharply curtailed in recent years, though it is still found in vehicle braking systems, asphalt roof coatings and gaskets.

EWG Action Fund, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group that focuses on researching toxins in the environment, said in its report that hazardous conditions persist today, even in workplaces where asbestos use is regulated.

Asbestos diseases overwhelmingly affect older men, according to the study. It found deaths from asbestos have been increasing steadily for the last 20 years in the United States, are still on the rise and will peak around 2015.

The study also said the highest death toll has come from asbestosis and mesothelioma. But it said the mortality rate of asbestosis was three times greater than the rate of mesothelioma between 1979 and 2001.

More than 625,000 people have filed lawsuits for asbestos-related injuries over the years. By the end of 2000, businesses and insurers had paid out more than $54 billion in claims, according to a 2002 Rand Corp. study.

Rand found that more than 300,000 cases were still pending and another 500,000 to 2.4 million claims could be filed in the years ahead, costing businesses upward of $210 billion. There are more than 3,000 asbestos lawsuits pending in the New Jersey court system.

In addition, 67 companies have filed for bankruptcy because of their asbestos liabilities, and additional companies are likely to seek Chapter 11 protection.

The defunct New Jersey-based Johns-Manville Corp. was the world's largest producer of asbestos when it declared bankruptcy in 1982 after being overwhelmed by lawsuits from people who had become sick from asbestos exposure. The company established a trust fund in 1988 that is paying only 5 percent of the value of the claims against it to reserve funds for future victims. As of October, the fund had settled 570,000 damage claims for $3.2 billion and had 43,000 claims pending.

One major bankruptcy case now pending in federal court in New Jersey involves five companies -- W.R. Grace, Owens-Corning, Armstrong World, U.S. Gypsum and Federal Mogul. All five firms sought bankruptcy protection after facing huge claims from those injured by asbestos exposure.

Two years ago, U.S. District Judge Alfred Wolin was assigned to try to resolve the extremely complicated case, but tactics he employed to move it along have been challenged by some of the parties who want him removed from the case. A federal appeals court is reviewing that issue.

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