The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 1,493 people died from asbestos in 2000, compared with 77 in 1968.
In fact, in 1998, asbestos-related deaths overtook those of black lung disease, reflecting in part the decline of the coal mining industry, the federal agency said.
The CDC reached its findings by reviewing the death certificates of nearly 125,000 people who had lung conditions linked to inhaling dust or fibers from minerals such as coal or asbestos.
Asbestos use in buildings increased substantially after World War II and peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Because asbestos-related illnesses are slow in developing - it can take up to 40 years between the time someone is exposed to the material and dies from it - asbestos deaths will probably increase through the next decade, said Michael Attfield, a CDC epidemiologist.
"What you've got are folks in their 60s and 70s who might otherwise live longer, but because of the damage to their lung tissue, it leads to an early death," said Forest Horne, a Raleigh, N.C., lawyer who represents asbestos patients. "We're paying the price now for the use of this mineral in almost every construction insulation product used back in the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, all the way to the '70s."
Government regulations in the 1970s helped curb the use of asbestos. It is still used, though under heavy regulation. It is found in more than 3,000 products, including brake linings, engine gaskets and roof coatings, and is still present as insulation in older buildings.
"The disease that's being manifested now is basically the result of high exposures over a long period of time - 20, 30, 40 years ago - and don't reflect what current regulations requires," said Bob Pigg, president of the Asbestos Information Association of North America. "Today's products can and are being used safely."
Exposure can cause asbestosis, in which asbestos fibers get into the lungs and scar them. The lungs get stiff and it becomes difficult for them to take in air or to transfer oxygen to the blood. This can lead to frequent lung infections and heart or respiratory failure. There is no effective treatment.
Whether someone will develop asbestosis depends on such factors as the intensity and duration of exposure and the person's age when exposed.
For years, coal workers' pneumoconiosis, or black lung, was a much more common lung disease. But cases have been on the decline, possibly because fewer people are employed in the coal mining industry today, the CDC said.
Also, asbestos was probably listed on death certificates more often in recent years as health officials became aware of its dangers.
By Daniel Yee