In recent years, the public has become more aware of the risks of asbestos exposure, and many industries have taken precautions to protect workers or eliminated asbestos use entirely. Unfortunately, many people still suffer the effects of asbestos exposure, and asbestos-related deaths are relatively high in the state of Washington compared to other states.
What contributes to these high rates of asbestos-related fatalities in our community, and what should residents know about their rights?
Local counties see increased rates of asbestos-related deaths.
Nationwide, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people die each year due to asbestosis, mesothelioma and other forms of lung cancer. That means approximately five out of every 100,000 people across the United States will die of an asbestos-related disease.
Unfortunately, that average is only one piece of the story. Washington state has seen thousands of deaths in recent years as a result of asbestos exposure, and our area has one of the highest fatality rates nationwide.
Kitsap County has the highest rate of fatal asbestos-related disease in Washington state, with more than 20 asbestos-related deaths occurring yearly for every 100,000 people in the area. Deaths are more than four times the national average and nearly triple the average in Washington state. Estimates indicate that over 1,000 people in our region died from asbestos-related conditions between 1999 and 2017, a tragic legacy of the shipyards and other industrial sites common throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Nearby counties also have significantly higher rates of asbestos-related deaths than state and national averages. These include:
- Mason County — On average, Mason County sees 18.3 deaths related to asbestos exposure for every 100,000 people.
- Jefferson County — Around 17.9 Jefferson County residents per 100,000 people pass away due to asbestos exposure.
- King County — Because King County has a relatively high population, it has a lower death rate for asbestos-related illnesses. Still, its total asbestos-related deaths put it fourth in the nation during the early 2000s, with an average of 99 deaths every year.
What contributes to these high rates?
While we expect to feel safe at home or in our workplace, those places we and our loved ones trusted could also have been the site of dangerous asbestos exposure.
Among the many occupations linked to asbestos exposure are construction, manufacturing and shipbuilding and repair. This area of Washington was once a central hub for shipbuilding and naval work, with shipyards employing thousands throughout the 20th century. Asbestos was part of many components used in Naval ships for decades. As a result, workers at these shipbuilding facilities may have frequently been exposed to asbestos fibers while building or repairing ships.
Washington was also home to many other industries that put workers in close contact with asbestos. The Spokane area was home to processing facilities that handled vermiculite, a mineral that was contaminated with asbestos. Many other industries also used asbestos because of its fireproofing abilities, including:
- Aluminum production
- Pulp and paper mills
- Oil refineries
- Power plants
Not only could workers in these industries find themselves working with asbestos, but people who worked around them could also be exposed, a risk known as bystander exposure.
Asbestos exposure could also occur in the home. Workers who worked around asbestos could carry this dangerous substance home on their clothing, hair, and skin. As a result, their families could have experienced exposure in the home without actually working with asbestos themselves.
What harm can asbestos cause?
Asbestos fibers are very fine, and many activities can release these hazardous materials into the air. Breathing these fibers into the lungs can cause them to become lodged in the tissue of the lungs, leading to scarring and inflammation. Asbestos fibers can also cause the lining of the lungs to thicken and harden.
Evidence also indicates that most mesothelioma cases are likely the result of asbestos exposure. Several government agencies recognize asbestos as a carcinogen, and some evidence links other cancers to asbestos exposure.
People may develop these serious illnesses decades after their initial asbestos exposure. The Centers for Disease Control notes that the latency period for asbestos-related diseases is often between 10 and 40 years. As a result, people who worked with asbestos in the 1960s or 1970s may only now see the impact of that exposure.
What can people do if they or a loved one develop a condition related to asbestos?
Asbestos-related diseases are costly and painful, but injured people and their families may be able to receive compensation for the harm they suffered as a result of asbestos exposure. If you or a loved one develops a disease related to this harmful substance, you should explore your legal options with a local firm knowledgeable about the local job sites, court systems, and workers’ compensation (L&I) options.