Mention of mesothelioma in mainstream media is a rare enough occurrence. Asbestos-related news is mostly confined to local press reporting of small building firms incorrectly handling and disposing of asbestos material waste or a response to new mesothelioma compensation legislation, such as the recently passed Mesothelioma Bill posted on dedicated online sites.

Elsewhere organisations, such as Mesothelioma UK, continue the vital work of maintaining asbestos awareness of both the past and present health risks of exposure, and providing information and support to the many mesothelioma and asbestosis disease sufferers across the UK.

Not unsurprisingly, interest has been expressed in a new ‘mesothelioma’ storyline, which recently begun on ‘Emmerdale’, the long-running ITV soap opera set in a fictional Yorkshire Dales village. In a double-bill episode, which aired in early April, the 28 year old Donna Windsor ( played by actress Verity Rushworth) revealed she had been diagnosed with the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer, declaring that, “ The hospital could monitor me – but there’s nothing they can do, really. It’s terminal.”

An average episode of Emmerdale generally attracts between 6 to 8 million viewers. Being one of Britain’s most watched television programmes, there’s no doubt that Emmerdale should be praised for tackling the subject of mesothelioma, which at the same time, can only help to raise awareness of asbestos exposure for many viewers unfamiliar with the ever-present risk.

Occupational or domestic female exposures

Indeed, some may be surprised to hear that a female 28 year old has fallen victim to the rare but deadly cancer. A recent Health and Executive (HSE) report published in October 2013 reconfirms that it is males aged 75 and over who have the highest mortality rates from occupational exposure while around a third of females who contract mesothelioma are caused by either occupational or domestic exposures.

The average “background mesothelioma risk” and female mesothelioma mortality has increased over the last four decades. Worryingly, exposure is not so easily identified for females, and could have occurred in “any setting” during the UK’s peak asbestos use between the 1950s to the 1970s / 80s.

Male workers returning home with asbestos contaminated clothing, which resulted in female ‘secondary’ exposure declined rapidly following the banning of the most toxic asbestos types from the mid 1980s onwards. Consequently, the dangers of female indirect exposure in workplaces, such as schools, nurseries and hospitals constructed or renovated with asbestos-containing materials became more prominent.

Exposure to asbestos in schools

The presence of asbestos hidden in the fabric of school or nursery buildings may also help to explain why young men or women can still potentially fall victim to mesothelioma if exposure occurred over a prolonged period of time. Medical research has also found that victims who are under the age of 20 when first exposed to asbestos would more likely to develop the fatal malignancy.

At the conclusion of a two-year study completed in June 2013, a Government advisory Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) also stated that “children are more vulnerable than adults” from exposure to asbestos. The COC research, which was based on the levels of exposure during the 1960s and 1970s, concluded that it was “reasonable” to suggest that around “100 or 150 deaths per year from mesothelioma in women could in the future be due to asbestos levels in schools up to the 1960s and 1970s.”

As the Emmerdale storyline unfolds, millions of viewers may gain further insight into the legacy of Britain’s asbestos-using past and the devastating effect upon those, young and old, who are suffering with the fatal consequences today.