Victims of mesothelioma are rarely diagnosed under 50 years of age. The long gestation period of between 15 to 50 years or more, which is commonly seen between a sustained period of exposure to asbestos and the emergence of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms means that confirmed diagnosis, invariably, occurs late in life when the disease has reached an advanced stage.

Increasingly, cases of asbestosis diseases are being diagnosed in men and women aged in their late fifties or early sixties, who often started work in asbestos-using factories and workshops in the 1970s and 1980s when they were in their late teens or early twenties. It’s also well-known that spouses and daughters were commonly affected by “secondary exposure” caused by handling asbestos-contaminated overalls / work clothes.

Higher degree of susceptibility

It’s not unknown for there to be instances where victims of the deadly incurable cancer are, tragically, very young indeed. Medical research continues to find evidence of a higher degree of susceptibility when young men and women were exposed to asbestos early on in their lives. Studies have previously found that the highest incidence of cancer affecting the linings of the lungs (malignant pleural mesothelioma) was among victims under the age of 20 when first exposed to asbestos.

The most common causes of non-occupational contact with asbestos in those aged under 20 are usually found to be “environmental exposures”, which occur by living in close proximity to asbestos-using factories or working inside buildings constructed with asbestos insulation/fireproofing materials, most notably, in schools and nurseries.

Breathing in asbestos dust at school

To date, the youngest person to contract mesothelioma in the UK was Manchester-born Sophie Ellis, who was only 13-years old when diagnosis was confirmed. While the source of Sophie’s exposure to asbestos remains unknown, it was suspected that she may have breathed in the dust particles at her school building. Despite outliving the average life expectancy for mesothelioma patients of between 4 to 18 months her five year battle against the disease ended tragically in August 2010, when she died aged just 18.

Two years earlier, in 2008, another female mesothelioma victim from Manchester, Leigh Carlisle, also died at the young age of 28. The source of the exposure was said by Leigh to have either occurred when taking a shortcut everyday to school through a factory yard where asbestos sheeting was being worked or breathing in the invisible dust particles while being taught in classrooms built with asbestos materials.

Two year study

Acute asbestos awareness of the greater health risks to children has grown in recent years. In June 2013, a Government advisory Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC), published a two year study into whether children are more vulnerable because they live longer – allowing mesothelioma tumour cells time to develop – or if children are more vulnerable because of their physical immaturity.

The COC that there was “unanimous agreement” over their conclusion that a child living longer does allow mesothlioma to develop, estimating that “the lifetime risk … is around 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25 and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.”

It is also predicted that between 200 and 300 people could die every year of mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure as children at school.