In 1924, Nellie Kershaw – a 33 year old factory worker at a Rochdale asbestos textile mill – became the first female victim of occupational asbestos exposure officially recognised as “pulmonary asbestosis.” Over the last ninety years, improvements in asbestos awareness have repeatedly revealed that woman continue to be at risk from asbestos, either in the workplace, through “secondary exposure” or “environmental exposure.”

In 2014, women in Britain can still be at risk from asbestos nearly thirty years after the first ban on the most toxic blue and brown asbestos types, and fifteen years since imports of the remaining asbestos type – white chrysotile – was halted. Recently published figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) indicate that there could as many as 400 female mesothelioma fatalities caused by asbestos exposure every year – double the diagnosis rate of the US and EU countries.

Previous research found there has been a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970, and a doubling in background “environmental” exposure rate, most of which occurred in just the last ten years. Both environmental and secondary exposures have been attributed to the deaths of around 1,200 women since 2008, alone.

Fatality rates not reduced as strongly as men

During the peak period of widespread, industrial use – especially during the 1950s and 60s – a general lack of protective equipment or clothing meant there was a daily risk of “secondary” exposure by wives or daughters handling asbestos-contaminated work clothes, overalls and boots brought home to be washed.

Research suggests that the increase in female exposure rates from environmental contact may be attributed to some reduction in male occupational exposure as the use of asbestos fibres as an insulating material began to slowly decline from the mid 80s onwards.

A 2013 report by HSE, which traced mesothelioma mortality between 1968 and 2011 found some indication that mesothelioma fatality rates in the 45-54 and 55-64 age groups, “have not reduced as strongly in women as in men” and “this may be consistent with a smaller proportion of female cases being caused by distinct occupational sources of exposure which ceased many years ago.”

Half of female victims could be school teachers

However, the danger of “environmental” exposure to asbestos used in the building of countless thousands of properties, from schools and hospitals to factory units and residential housing meant that it was women who began to be more prominent as victims of diagnosed mesothelioma or other asbestosis diseases.

HSE say that a Freedom of Information request found a high percentage of female victims are aged 70-74, i.e. those born in the late 1930s early 1940s. However, increasing numbers of mesothelioma cases now also involve women aged in their 50 or 60s who were continuously employed for several years as teachers, factory workers or even store assistants during the early part of their working lives in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s. According to the Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COC), half of female mesothelioma could now be caused by the presence of asbestos in schools.

The unusually long gestation period of up to 40 or 50 years from an initial period of exposure to the emergence of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms means that confirmed diagnosis numbers are, according to HSE, still set to prolong for a significant number of years ahead with around 45,000 mesothelioma deaths expected for at least another decade.