Mortality among South Carolina Textile Workers

The predominance of textile mills on the East Coast has a rich American history, dating back to the days of Alexander Hamilton, who established the first mill in New Jersey. As the country expanded, merchant’s such as Marshall Fields bought textiles from the mills of South Carolina, whose economy boomed with demand for the commercial goods. Greenville, South Carolina came to be known as the ‘Textile Center of the South,’ and played a major role in the progression and development of the area. The reality of the use of asbestos in the textile industry, however, tells a much less hopeful tale. Not only were the mills themselves constructed with asbestos containing materials, but the asbestos fibers themselves were weaved into the cloth as well. Asbestos is, in fact, the only natural mineral that is able to do so, and because it is so insulating and heat-resistant, its use was abundant.

Textile mills in South Carolina manufactured products made partially or entirely from asbestos until the late 1970s, and some even after. One mill in particular, though abandoned in the 1970s, was not demolished or uncontaminated until 2004. Asbestos attorneys highlight a specific study recently published by Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which delves into the mortality rate among textile workers employed between 1940 and 1965.

A cohort of 3,072 workers exposed to chrysotile asbestos was followed up for mortality through 2001. Some have suggested that “pure” chrysotile may not in fact be carcinogenic and that respiratory cancer excesses that have been observed in studies of chrysotile exposed workers may be explained by trace tremolite contamination in commercially used chrysotile. This speculation is referred to as the ‘amphilbole hypothesis.’

This study is supportive evidence against this hypothesis. The strong exposure‐response relations between chrysotile and lung cancer, in addition to pneumoconiosis and other respiratory diseases (including asbestosis), have persisted in updates of this cohort. The plant used an average of between 6-8 million pounds of chrysotile per year.

Detailed work histories listing beginning and ending dates in departments and operations were available for each member of the cohort. A department‐, operation‐, and calendar year‐specific job exposure matrix was available to link with the detailed work histories to calculate cumulative exposure to chrysotile.

Mortality was elevated for all causes combined and all cancers. Among the cohort there was an excess mortality from esophageal cancer; mortality from cancers of the respiratory system was elevated, largely due to excess mortality from lung cancer; mortality from ischemic heart disease was elevated; and mortality from diseases of the respiratory system was elevated. Cumulative exposure was positively and significantly associated with lung cancer mortality in all models tested.

Mortality from asbestosis (62 observed deaths) was highly elevated based on US referent rates. A majority (96%) of the 198 lung cancer deaths occurred 20 years or more after first exposure.

Workers exposed to chrysotile in textile manufacturing were observed to have excess mortality from several causes of death including all cancers, particularly esophageal and lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, pneumoconiosis and other respiratory diseases, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diseases of the digestive system. Increasing and highly statistically significant trends with increasing cumulative exposure were observed for both lung cancer and asbestosis. Standardised mortality ratios were elevated for lung cancer and pneumoconiosis and other respiratory diseases even among the lowest exposure group.

In this cohort, a high percentage (71%) of the short‐term workforce was only employed during the World War II years. Mortality from lung cancer and pneumoconiosis and other respiratory diseases was still elevated and positively associated with estimated cumulative exposure to chrysotile in supplemental analyses including short‐term workers.

This study reinforces the already-established fact that no amount of asbestos exposure is safe; even short-term and low-exposure results in premature death and disease. This study also confirms that chrysotile asbestos is extremely carcinogenic, contrary to the aforementioned ‘amphibole hypothesis.’ Chrysotile may be less potent than some amphiboles for inducing mesothelioma (of which there were three cases from this study), but there is significant evidence of cancer risk.

Lung cancer lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm urge those employed at textile mills at any point, and for any duration of time, to seek medical attention. If you suspect symptoms of any asbestos-related diseases, contact an experienced asbestos attorney immediately.