Linda Reinstein is a mother and grandmother.   Linda Reinstein is an asbestos-disease widow.  Her husband Alan Reinstein, 67, died on May 22, 2006 from mesothelioma.  Like her husband, Linda Reinstein is a fighter, an organizer, an activist.   Following Alan Reinstein’s mesothelioma diagnosis in 2003, they founded the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) which is now entering its sixth year.  The organization strives to serve as the “voice of the victims.”

Next month, the ADAO will host its 5th annual Asbestos Awareness Day conference (March 27-29, Manhattan Beach, California).   Asbestos awareness in the year 2009?   What does it say about the state of global and national public health when we still have the need for an Asbestos Awareness conference??

Sadly, many in the U.S. don’t know much about asbestos or asbestos-related disease.   That is, not until it strikes your family or friend.   Exposure to asbestos can cause several types of cancer, and asbestosis is a progressive, disabling respiratory disease caused by inhaling microscopic, long-thin, durable mineral fibers.   There is no cure for asbestosis. 

As early as 1898, factory inspectors in the U.K. recognized the adverse respiratory health effects associated with exposure to asbestos fibers.  By the 1930’s the scientific evidence of the association between asbestos exposure and non-malignant respiratory disease was overwhelming, and not long after, the evidence emerged that asbestos was a carcinogen.  When a mortality study of asbestos insulation workers was published in 1968, showing lung cancer rates seven times the expected rate, the evidence was unequivocal. 

The World Health Organization estimates that at least 125 million across the globe are exposed to asbestos at work.   Asbestosis claims about 7,000 lives annually and 380,000 disability-adjusted life years (DALY’s).   The number of worldwide asbestos-related cancer deaths are less precise, but in the U.S. alone,  about 2,500 cases of malignant mesothelioma are listed on individuals’ death certificates as an underlying or contributing cause of death.

As I’ve heard Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) say on many occasions:

“Many Americans think asbestos was banned, but it wasn’t.  In 1989, the EPA tried to ban asbestos, but portions of those regulations were overturned in court in 1991.”

At least 40 countries have banned asbestos, but not the U.S.   Since 2001, Senator Murray has advanced legislation to ban asbestos-containing materials and products in the U.S., support asbestos-disease research and treatment programs, and enhance public education on asbestos-related topics.   ADAO and the American Public Health Association are eager to see the legislation introduced in this new 111th Congress.

Featured speakers at the upcoming conference will include individuals who have asbestos-related disease and are scientific experts on diagnosis and treatment of the diseases.  Attendees will also be honoring the services and accomplishments of:

Stephen Levin, MD of the Mount Sinai-Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and director of the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program.  He will be receiving the Irving J. Selikoff Lifetime Achievement award.

Pralhad Malvadkar and Raghunath Manwar, who are community activists supporting and assisting victims of asbestos exposure in India and across the globe.

Margaret Seminario, director of health and safety for the AFL-CIO.  She will be receiving the ADAO’s Tribute of Unity Award for the AFL-CIO’s  global efforts to unite, educate and empower asbestos victims and workers.

With 125 million people worldwide still exposed to asbestos, and the latency period for some asbestos-related diseases exceeding 30 years, I suppose there may be a continued need for asbestos awareness well into the future.  That’s unfortunate.   How might the state of public health look today had policy makers heeded the warnings from the U.K. factory inspectors in 1898, Selikoff and colleagues in the 1960’s, or Castleman, Ozonoff, and others in the 1980’s?

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