Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer caused by asbestos. This means we see fewer mesothelioma diagnoses when we have less asbestos in the environment.
However, the disease also features a long latency period. People can often live decades after their exposure to asbestos before they develop mesothelioma. This makes it hard to get a clear picture of the disease and its effect on our population.
Mesothelioma diagnoses reveal clear patterns
The CDC tracks mesothelioma diagnoses in the United States. The good news is that the past couple decades have seen fewer new diagnoses. The bad news is that we’re seeing more signs of second-hand and legacy exposure.
The United States has not yet fully banned asbestos use, but it has banned most uses. Perhaps, more importantly, U.S. businesses largely stopped using asbestos in the 1980s. They responded to the threat posed by lawsuits. In many cases, their actions were too little, too late. Even so, the shift away from asbestos has led to a decline in mesothelioma diagnoses.
Because of the latency period, the decline wasn’t immediate. Instead, mesothelioma rates tend to drop roughly 20 years after the introduction of an asbestos ban. This means U.S. mesothelioma rates through the late 1990s are based on peak asbestos use:
- 85% of victims suffered work-related asbestos exposure
- 82% of mesothelioma diagnoses are pleural mesothelioma
- The average age for someone to receive a pleural mesothelioma diagnoses is 72 years
- Mesothelioma diagnoses are more common among Caucasians and Hispanics than other races
The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) says there are roughly 3,000 new mesothelioma diagnoses each year in the United States. The ASCO also notes that in 2020, there were 30,870 diagnoses worldwide. This means victims outside the United States may not follow the same patterns as those inside the United States.
The demographics of mesothelioma are changing
At the same time, studies reveal another, more troubling trend. As the CDC noted in a May 2022 report, mesothelioma rates among women have increased.
Importantly, the women diagnosed with mesothelioma look quite different from the standard male victims. Unlike male victims, these women weren’t often shipbuilders, construction workers, pipefitters, auto mechanics or workers in other asbestos-related industries. Instead, the women were:
- Largely homemakers and healthcare workers
- 10 times more likely to suffer from mesothelioma if their husbands or fathers had worked with asbestos
- Disproportionately rooted in seven states with clear histories of asbestos mining and production
- 7% diagnosed at ages 55 and up
These facts may suggest a new future for mesothelioma cases. Cases will continue to follow asbestos exposure. However, as fewer people work directly with asbestos, we may see more cases tied to second-hand and legacy exposure.
Second-hand exposure is a concern because asbestos fibers can get caught in clothing. Workers who bring their work clothes home may also be carrying deadly asbestos fibers.
Legacy exposure refers to the fact that old materials can release asbestos into the air as they break down. We frequently see reports of such legacy exposure related to aging buildings, such as hospitals, schools, offices and apartment buildings.
People can also suffer environmental exposure. This often happens when workers fail to properly contain and dispose of asbestos-laden materials.
Asbestos exposure is always dangerous
These studies make it clear that people don’t suffer from mesothelioma because they worked a specific job. They don’t develop mesothelioma because of their age or race. Rather, they suffer because someone exposed them to asbestos.
Since the 1980s, the United States has significantly reduced its asbestos use. This has led to changes in where and how people find themselves exposed to asbestos. As a result, we are now seeing changes in the demographics of asbestos diagnoses. These changes will likely continue.