Even most oncologists would describe mesothelioma as a man’s disease. For decades, it was the cancer that struck those who were often described as among our hardest working men – shipbuilders, construction workers, steel mill employees, railroad workers, refinery employees, and others who tackled some of the toughest jobs in the country. Women just didn’t do these jobs – or only in rare instances – so their chances of being exposed to asbestos were far lower.
Eventually, however, it became quite evident that while women were perhaps not being directly exposed to asbestos during those years between about 1940 and 1980, they were indeed being exposed in a sort of backhanded way…and most of the women who eventually developed mesothelioma due to secondhand exposure probably had no idea asbestos was dangerous, just like their spouses, brothers, sons, grandfathers, who breathed in asbestos fibers on a daily basis.
The earliest instances of women and mesothelioma in 20th century America usually resulted from exposure to a family member who came home after a long day’s work with asbestos dust on their clothing, in their hair, or on other parts of their body.
The women would shake out the clothing before laundering it, sending toxic fibers into the air where they would be inhaled by whomever happened to be in the vicinity. Other exposures occurred simply by being in close contact with those who were covered with asbestos dust.
Stories are told by mesothelioma victims about cuddling with their dad after work, not knowing that the white dust on his clothing would eventually make them sick.
Today, about 8 percent of all cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in the U.S. are among women and most – more than half, according to a Durham and Duke University study (Roggli at al) – are still attributed to instances of secondary exposure.
Another study, penned in 1989 by Huncharek et al (“Domestic asbestos exposure, lung fiber burden, and pleural mesothelioma in a housewife”) stated that “household contamination can result in “bystander” exposure levels similar to those found in the industrial setting.” In other words, it was just as dangerous to be exposed secondhand as it was to suffer direct exposure. That’s an alarming statement but one that has certainly proven to be true.
Looking back at the heyday of asbestos use, which was during World War II, it is likely that many women who entered the workforce during that time – doing jobs that they wouldn’t have normally done – may have been exposed to the mineral in the workplace.
When the war was over and women returned to home, the incidence of exposure among women likely fell. Even after women began to re-enter the workplace, assuming full-time jobs, it is unlikely that they were in positions that put them in much danger of exposure.
However, there are still occupations that put today’s woman at risk for developing mesothelioma. This includes jobs such as firefighters and EMTs. For these individuals, exposure occurs when fighting fires or performing rescue or recovery missions inside or in the vicinity of older buildings that may contain asbestos.
As a matter of fact, the first rescue worker to succumb to mesothelioma after the fall of the World Trade Center towers was a woman, Deborah Reeve, an EMT who was 41 years old when she died in 2006.
In addition, women in the military – serving both at home and overseas – are at constant risk of asbestos exposure. In the U.S., old military bases often include buildings that were insulated with asbestos materials. In locations like the countries of the Middle East, asbestos was used abundantly and it’s likely that old friable asbestos may be encountered in the rubble of structures destroyed by acts of war.
With more women taking on home renovation projects with their spouses/partners, friends, or on their own, there have been more incidences of accidental asbestos exposure among the female population.
While DIY projects can be exciting and certainly save money, anyone who is tackling such a project in a building that was erected prior to about 1980 should be aware that asbestos-containing products may be encountered. These include:
Tiles – both floor and ceiling
All DIY projects that involve tearing down walls and ceilings, pulling up tiles, removing siding, etc. should include a pre-renovation inspection by a licensed asbestos inspection company. The inspector can verify whether or not asbestos is present and, if it is, he will be able to advise whether it should be removed or can simply be encapsulated for safety purposes. DIY exposures are indeed avoidable if the proper steps are followed.
In most cases, when a woman is diagnosed with mesothelioma, the same treatments recommended for her male counterpart is recommended for her. However, it was noted in an issue of the Annals of Thoracic Surgery, penned in 2010, that studies have discovered a better survival rate among women.
One study in particular, authored by faculty members at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston (Wolf et al), noted that – because of this – the disease should be treated quite aggressively when diagnosed in a female.
Additionally, another more recent study – also conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital – showed that gender-specific mutations might be the reason why women with malignant mesothelioma are living longer than men with the same disease.
Because this has come to light, the study authors note, they may be able to devise better and more effective treatments for both sexes.
Being familiar with these gender differences is essential, experts say, because of the gross disparity between the survival rates of women vs. men. The five-year survival rate for women has been situated at 13.4 percent compared to only 4.5 percent for men.
For younger victims in better overall health, the five-year survival rate for women is 38.6 percent while it’s less than half that number – 17.3 percent – for men.
The study also noted that women more often opt for surgery then men who are in the same stages of this disease. This also ups the survival rate for women.
When exposure is direct, caused within a workplace or even via a DIY project, it’s usually pretty clear who is responsible for the asbestos-related problems a woman may suffer. As with men who are exposed in this manner, the negligent party is often the manufacturer of the asbestos products used in the workplace or the employer. If the injured party wishes to sue for compensation, it’s generally a cut-and-dry case.
However, when a woman suffers secondhand exposure to asbestos, the circumstances of exposure may not be as clear. Furthermore, these women are not eligible for worker’s compensation because they are not employees of the company they believe to be responsible for their illness.
An experienced mesothelioma attorney best knows how to handle the particulars of secondhand asbestos exposure, particularly within the state in which they practice, as laws do indeed vary from state to state. Any woman who believes she is a victim of secondhand asbestos exposure should consult with a local attorney to gather information on the options available for garnering compensation.