WASHINGTON - Ten-thousand Americans die each year from asbestos-related diseases and the number appears to be increasing in a growing public health crisis, according to a report by an environmental research group released on Thursday.
The analysis by the Washington-based Environmental Working Group also projects that more than 100,000 people in the United States will die of four asbestos-related diseases -- mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer and gastrointestinal cancer -- over the next ten years.
The nonprofit research organization said it based its analysis on 25 years worth of U.S. government data on asbestos mortality and examined the toll from just two causes of asbestos deaths -- mesothelioma and asbestosis.
The report said that while most of the deaths were among workers who were exposed to the fire-proofing mineral decades ago, more than 1 million people are currently exposed to asbestos on the job and millions more are exposed to asbestos in the environment.
Asbestos was widely used for fireproofing and insulation until the 1970s. Scientists have concluded that inhaled asbestos fibers are linked to cancer and other diseases.
"We're at the beginning of a tidal wave of asbestos diseases and mortality that needs to be brought to the attention of the public, federal policymakers and health officials," the report's author, Richard Wiles, said in an interview.
Among recommendations to address what it says is a public health problem of epidemic proportions, the EWG report calls for an immediate ban on asbestos.
Dr. Richard Lemen, an occupational and environmental health consultant and former assistant U.S. Surgeon General, said that beyond a ban, public health agencies need to work to dispel the misconception that asbestos is no longer a threat.
"Asbestos is still with us. We have reduced exposure and that's a step in the right direction," Lemen said in a telephone interview. "What we haven't done is we haven't had an educational campaign and public health campaign to educate people that it still exists and that there needs to be precautions taken and people are going to continue to get sick."
The EWG report also recommends federal asbestos health screening and a "fair measure of assistance" for victims of asbestos exposure.
The EWG's Wiles criticized as "grossly insufficient" legislation under consideration in the U.S. Senate that aims to end asbestos lawsuits.
"This is not an issue of bankruptcy (for asbestos firms). This is a public health issue and they need to address it on those terms," Wiles said.
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