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New Cancer Risks Linked to Asbestos

June 7, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Alarmingly high levels of cancer and lung damage have been found in the wives and children of asbestos workers and in construction workers who don’t work directly with asbestos, researchers reported Thursday.

The families of asbestos workers in one study are dying of cancer at 1 1/2 times the rate of the general population, and their only exposure to asbestos was the dust on the clothes of their husbands and fathers, a researcher said.

Many previous studies have found elevated disease and death rates among workers who produced asbestos or worked with it. The new studies find that asbestos is deadly even for construction workers who do not use it in their jobs.

High levels of asbestos-related cancer also have been found in school custodians in three separate studies, suggesting that the asbestos hazard in schools is greater than anticipated, said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

The studies are being presented at a conference that began Thursday. The conference deals with the hazards of asbestos already in place in schools and other buildings. Landrigan was one of the conference’s organizers.

″The hazard of asbestos in place is more than we anticipated,″ Landrigan said.

Jacques Dunnigan of The Asbestos Institute, which represents the interests of Canadian asbestos mines, argued that Canadian asbestos, called chrysotile asbestos, is less dangerous than other forms. Asked about the reports at the conference, he said, ″It’s very, very poor science that I’m listening to.″

Asbestos-related diseases - lung cancer, a lung-scarring called asbestosis and a cancer of the lung lining called mesothelioma - occur 20 to 30 years after exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos was widely used as insulation in schools and other buildings during the construction boom of the 1950s and 1960s, and so asbestos-related diseases are just beginning to appear.

These diseases now cause about 10,000 deaths per year, said Dr. Stephen M. Levin, also of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Lou Joubert of the American Cancer Society studied 878 children and wives of men who worked at a now-closed asbestos plant in Paterson, N.J. Of the 115 that have died, 38 percent died of cancer, compared with an expected death rate of 20 percent to 25 percent in the general population.

Dr. Laura Welch of George Washington University in Washington found that 40 percent of sheet metal workers - who do not use asbestos in their work - had asbestos-related lung damage, a precursor of asbestosis or cancer. They were exposed to asbestos on construction sites, Welch said.

Landrigan found the same asbestos-related lung damage in fire fighters with at least 20 years of service. Their rate of lung damage was seven times that of the general population. The fire fighters are typically exposed to asbestos when they enter buildings after fires have been put out, he said.

Levin reported the results of a study in which he and his colleagues examined 660 New York City school custodians 20 years after any possible exposure to asbestos. The researchers found that 28 percent of the custodians had asbestos-related lung damage.

″It was somewhat surprising,″ he said. ″We knew exposure occurred, but while we expected to see some disease, the rates surprised us.″ Similar findings were reported from independent studies in Los Angeles and Boston, Levin said.

An article in Science magazine in January argued that asbestos in schools and other buildings was not a significant hazard.

Scientists at the New York conference were sharply critical of the paper, which they said was already causing some building owners and regulatory agencies to be less diligent in containing or removing asbestos.

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