More Allegheny County residents die from asbestos-related illnesses than any other county in the state, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group Action Fund.
Researchers found that between 1999 and 2013, at least 189,000 Americans died from asbestos-related diseases, including 14,216 in Pennsylvania and 1,616 in Allegheny County alone. The county’s average death rate was nearly double the national average, authors said.
Before 1980, asbestos was frequently used in construction, plumbing, carpentry and ironworking. Local death counts are high because Allegheny County and the state at large boast some of the greatest volumes of such trades then and now, said Dr. Rodney Landreneau, director of thoracic surgery and thoracic oncology at the Allegheny Health Network.
“Heavy industry and building and construction in our area, I would say, would be the most common areas of concern as far as industrial exposure,” he said.
The three main diseases related to asbestos exposure are lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. Asbestosis is a scarring of the lungs from breathing in asbestos fibers, which could lead to cancer later in life. Mesothelioma is a rare and often deadly cancer that affects the lining of the lungs and could spread to a person’s heart and diaphragm as the disease progresses, according to Landreneau. Nationally, medical professionals treat about 3,000 new cases each year, he said.
Common symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are shortness of breath, chest pains and cough, but usually don’t manifest for a very long time, he said.
“The lag time of first exposure to the symptoms or the understanding of diagnosis of [mesothelioma] is commonly 30, 40 years,” Landreneau said.
Asbestosis manifests at approximately 20 years, he said.
Because their symptoms are common for a variety of medical conditions, and mesothelioma is so rare, doctors don't often warrant such a diagnosis unless prolonged exposure to asbestos has occurred in a person’s life – likely through their career, or even through secondhand exposure from a family member working with the substance.
Asbestosis has no cure, and breathing treatments are typical for those diagnosed. Mesothelioma and other cancers are usually treated with chemotherapy and surgery, which are most effective if the disease is caught early enough, Landreneau said. The survival rates are grim for patients in later stages and those diagnosed at an advanced age.
“Mesothelioma is a disease that’s not well-managed with regard to medical therapy or surgical therapy for the most part,” he said. “It can be a very devastating disease for most patients."
Average life expectancies after diagnosis usually fall around one to two years, he said.
The rates of these diseases are currently increasing because many diagnosed were exposed to the carcinogen when its use was commonplace decades ago, and the disease is just manifesting now.
Though not completely banned in the U.S., many prohibitions on asbestos now exist. Companies must report to the Environmental Protection Agency if and how they use asbestos in their products, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has regulations to limit an employee’s exposure for industries that continue to use the substance. Landreneau said these steps will help limit future cases.