clock menu more-arrow no yes

How many people are killed by asbestos? It's more difficult to track than you think.

According to the World Health Organization, 125 million people around the world are exposed to absestos and more than 100,000 die from exposure annually.

What impact does asbestos have in the US today? Let's look at two factors. First, it is still legal to import and use in the US, although the amount has gone down significantly due to regulation and litigation. Most asbestos exposure occurs when the material is disturbed during construction work in buildings, causing fibers to become airborne and inhaled  a particularly dramatic example of this happened after the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001.

Second, most people may not even know that exposure in the first place  and because of that reason, it's particularly difficult to tally of how many people in the United States actually die from asbestos exposure.

Correlating cancers to causes is a matter of estimation

In terms of what the US government reports, the CDC recorded an average of 2,500 American deaths a year due to malignant mesothelioma, a cancer linked to asbestos exposure, between 1999 to 2005 — and predicted that deaths would peak in 2010.

However, some critics claim the CDC leaves out other types of lung cancers potentially caused by asbestos. The Environmental Working Group Action Fund, an advocacy group, claims that annual deaths are significantly higher — anywhere from 8,000 to 15,000 per year between 1999 and 2013 — by applying an alternative method that extrapolates lung cancer rates caused by exposure; EWG's data is not peer-reviewed, though, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

It's difficult to determine how many Americans die from exposure — whether 2,500 a year or 15,000 — without having a better way to track it, something not even the government is great at. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general found the agency had threatened human health by exposing workers to asbestos during a study. Ironically, the study was examining safe alternative methods of asbestos removal.