Trouble in The Air

Senate Bill Grants Immunity To Asbestos Companies and Cuts Assistance To Terminally-Ill Asbestos Victims

April 25, 2005

Trouble in The Air: Senate Bill Comes Up Short

Proposed Asbestos Trust Fund Will Leave Tens of Thousands With Nothing

A fund designed to take care of all the victims of asbestos would not terminate arbitrarily after 28 years, would not cap assistance at a predetermined amount, and would be supported by a serious effort to find all people injured by asbestos. This fund would recognize the medical fact that asbestos diseases will continue for at least another 5 decades, a provide a funding mechanism that would last as long as people wiere harmed by the fiber.

A fund sufficient to take care of all asbestos disease that will arise over the next 50 years will cost at least $200 billion — far more than the amount proposed by the Senate. If assistance matched current levels in the courts and trusts, and truly reached all those injured or killed by asbestos, the total cost could reach well above $400 billion, as much as three times the amount proposed by Senate Specter.

Slashing assistance to people dying of mesothelioma

In 2002, nearly 2,600 mesothelioma deaths and more than 1,400 asbestosis fatalities were reported to the federal government. These numbers, particularly for mesothelioma, almost certainly underestimate actual mortality. In addition, the number of deaths from both of these diseases appears to be increasing, a trend that is supported by data from the National Center for Health Statistics and two epidemiological studies in Great Britain and Australia that show increases in mesothelioma mortality that are not expected to peak until around 2020 (Treasure 2004, Leigh 2003).

Assuming a slight increase in mesothelioma rates for the next decade and then a steady decline in incidence for the subsequent 40 years, we estimate 113,000 mesothelioma deaths in the United States over the next 50 years. Nearly 80,000 of these cases will occur over the 28-year life of the proposed fund; at least 33,000 will occur after the fund terminates. These 33,000 individuals will all die from mesothelioma, but receive no financial help from the government or asbestos companies.

At the current average award value in the courts of $2.2 million, the nearly 80,000 mesothelioma cases likely to occur over the next 28 years would consume all of the $140 billion in the proposed trust fund. Either mesothelioma victims receive just half of what they currently receive on average in the courts, or, if they are compensated at the current average rate, hundreds of thousands of other people with asbestos disease, including tens of thousands of who would die from it, would receive nothing from the national trust fund.

Projecting the next 50 years of mortality at the current $2.2 million average assistance level, the fund would need $240 billion, or $100 billion more than the entire amount in the current proposal just to take care of mesothelioma victims.

Other Asbestos Diseases
Mesothelioma represents just a small portion of all asbestos mortality and disease. An additional 4,800 people currently each year die from asbestos caused lung cancer, more than 1,400 from non-cancer asbestosis, and 1,200 more from gastro-intestinal cancers caused by asbestos. About ten times more than the total of all cancer deaths are expected to be diagnosed with non-fatal, but debilitating and typically progressive asbestosis over the next 30 years, according to the CBO (CBO 2003).

Lung cancer
Lung cancer is the number one cause of asbestos mortality, yet little is done to identify victims or to ensure that they receive a fair measure of assistance. Currently there are about twice as many cases of asbestos-caused lung cancer as mesothelioma, at nearly 5,000 and 2,500 deaths per year respectively (Peterson 2003 Insurers Study, NCHS 2003, Nicholson 1982).

Assuming that lung cancer incidence approximates the same trend as mesothelioma, we expect a slight increase in lung cancer cases over the next ten years and then a steady decline over the next 40 years, for a total of about 220,000 asbestos lung cancers over the next 50-year period. If these individuals are awarded what they currently receive through the courts, about $400,000, the Senate Bill would need to provide $88 billion for these individuals over the next 50 years.

Non cancer
Court awards for non-cancer asbestos disease average about $100,000. Non-malignant asbestos disease, or asbestosis, runs the range from severely disabling and even fatal, where awards are much higher than the $100,000 average, to ILO category 1 asbestosis cases, the least severe form of the disease, where awards are often lower.

The number of future non-malignant claims to the trust is not certain, but estimates range from 7 to 17 times the number of cancer claims. The CBO estimated non-cancer claims at 10 times the number of malignant claims over the 27-year life of the proposed trust fund. At that ratio we would expect to see 2.5 million non-cancer claims over the 50-year period where asbestos cancers were still occurring.

Non-cancer claims, however, may decline more rapidly than cancer claims, because they typically require heavy occupational exposure to asbestos to occur, whereas asbestos cancers can be caused by the relatively short term exposures that were more common in recent decades and that include environmental exposures. Given current rates of mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer, a ratio of 10 non-cancer cases to one cancer case for the first two decades of the fund would produce about 1.2 million non cancer cases in the first 20 years of the fund, and close to 2 million over the life of a 50 year fund.

A realistic estimate of compensation for non-cancer claims that does not shortchange future victims relative to what the average person currently receives in court, yields a range of 1 to 2 million non-cancer cases that will be compensated at about $95,000 each. This would require between $95 and $195 billion over the life of the fund. Over the course of a 50 year fund, there could easily be close to 2 million people who are legitimately sick from asbestos.