A female art teacher, aged just 60 years old, lost her life to mesothelioma in September 2014. It has been reported that exposure to asbestos occurred “while hanging pupils’ paintings on classroom walls” and also in her early 20s when cutting sheets of asbestos during the 1970s.

Her premature death, following a confirmed diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma just 14 months earlier, tragically highlights the findings from a report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), released around the same time.

Female teacher fatality rise

Data obtained from the HSE under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that the number of school teachers who died from mesothelioma has increased in the previous decade. Since 1980, a total of 291 school teachers have fallen victim to the deadly disease and over 60 per cent of the deaths (177) have occurred since 2001, alone.

More worryingly, the latest figures from the education sector point to the significant rise of the ‘Proportional Mortality Ratio’ for female primary school teachers to triple the number if asbestos exposure had not taken place at all. Between 2002-2010, fatality figures for female primary school teachers reached just over 118 compared to 85 for nurses and 66 for male secondary teachers.

As the number of mesothelioma cases has risen in the UK – by almost four-fold in the last thirty years – previous studies have also found a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970.

Visible rise in female asbestos exposure rates

A 2013 report by HSE “tracing mesothelioma mortality between 1968 and 2011 also found that mesothelioma fatality rates in the 45-54 and 55-64 age groups, “have not reduced as strongly in women as in men.” Around a third of females who contract mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos either at work or environmentally, both of which have been responsible for the deaths of around 1,200 women since 2008.

It has been suggested that the more visible rise in female exposure rates may be the result of a fall in male occupational exposure. The use of asbestos fibres as an insulating material declined from the late 1970s onwards as a result of increased asbestos awareness to the severe health risks of mesothelioma and other asbestosis diseases. In 1985, the first ban on the most toxic brown and blue asbestos types was finally introduced.

Despite of the legislation, throughout the 1980s and 90s, around 25,000 tons of white chrysotile asbestos were still being imported for use by the construction industry to insulate ceilings and walls, as well as lining heating and air conditioning systems, pipes and boilers.

Employed in buildings where asbestos was installed

A generation of men and women who began their working lives during the 1970s and 80s would have been employed in buildings where asbestos had been previously installed as insulation and fireproofing material. Among the many thousands of unwitting victims would be teachers, their pupils and other staff in nurseries, schools and colleges.

A Government advisory committee on carcinogenicity (COC) recently concluded that , “It is reasonable to say that something in the order of 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” and “it is reasonable to assume that the same number of males as females are dying of mesothelioma caused by their asbestos exposure at school.”

In June 2014, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that the number of mesothelioma deaths had increased by nearly 11 per cent in just one year to more than 2,500 in 2012.