Underreporting of the occupational diseases caused by asbestos is a great concern in the United States, as well as in Europe. The Global Ban Asbestos Network reports that for every four or five cases of these diseases, at least one doesn’t get reported. These health issues have gone under-reported for decades, before the American government began to discover deaths related to the substance and before the long-term lethal effects were well-known.

What is it?

Asbestos is a mineral that has been mined for more than 4,000 years; by the end of the 19th century it was being used in manufacturing and building, because it was durable and resistant to fire, heat, chemical and electrical damage. It is a set of six silicate minerals that are naturally produced and it looks like long, thin crystals with each fiber visible. The substance releases fibrils due to abrasion and once airborne, it causes numerous health issues.

Asbestosis is a chronic lung ailment that is a result of prolonged exposure and inhalation of the fibers of this mineral. The symptoms can range from mild to severe, but generally these don’t appear until many years after a person has been continually exposed. Most people with this illness acquired it from their job, before the federal government began to regulate its use back in the 1970s.

Mesothelioma is another ailment caused by this mineral. This disease is actually a tumor that affects the tissues of the lung, stomach, heart and other organs. It usually starts in the lungs however, it can also manifest first in the abdomen or any other organ. The tumor can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Mesothelioma is very rare and most people who have developed it, have done so after being exposed on the job.

Reporting Rates

Currently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that an estimated 11 million people were exposed to asbestos between 1940 and 1978. Each year, the organization reports that 2,000 to 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed. Because males are exposed to these mineral fibers more often than women, they are almost five times more likely to be diagnosed with an asbestos related disease. For people more than 60 years of age, the risk of developing this cancer is ten times higher than that of those who are younger than 40. This sickness claimed almost 30,000 lives in America from 1999 to 2010. A study of global statistics on this disease showed that one in every five cases goes unreported.

The rate of death from asbestosis has steadily been on the rise from 1979 through 1998. Better tracking and reporting accounts for the dramatic increase in deaths reported from the disease, but lung cancer deaths related to the mineral are not reported at all, meaning it is still horribly underreported even in populations of workers where exposure to the mineral was well established. Additionally, there remains a heavy use of the mineral in brake shoes and other products, as well as people being exposed in the home or workplace without even knowing it.


The United States is one of the very few developed countries that has not completely banned the use of this toxic mineral. It’s still legal and widely used to manufacture clothing, vinyl flooring tiles, cement pipes, disc brake pads, pipeline wraps, roof coatings and gaskets.

Although there has been legislature proposed to ban the use of this mineral, it’s been challenged and overturned by industry workers. People can find out which products contain legal amounts of this mineral by checking the EPA website.

Reducing exposure to asbestos is the best way to prevent the occupational illnesses that are associated with it. In the U.S. federal laws require employers to provide workers who may be exposed to this mineral with special safety equipment.

Generally, there’s no reason for concern so long as the fibers don’t become airborne. However, illnesses generally only occur after prolonged exposure to the fibers and many people may have been exposed unknowingly and before special safety measures were put into place, which is why underreporting rates are so high.