It’s not just for a male victim in a mesothelioma claim that a spouse or family member will call upon former co-workers to provide evidence of workplace exposure to asbestos decades earlier. Increasingly, help is desperately sought for a female victim too.

Women now account for 1 in 6 mesothelioma deaths, according to latest available figures from The Health and Safety Executive (HSE Annual Report, Great Britain, 2014). Of 2,515 mesothelioma deaths, 414 were female fatalities. Research suggests that there has been an increase in female exposure rates compared to a reduction in male occupational exposure. Between 1968 and 2011 mesothelioma deaths in the 45-54 and 55-64 age groups, “have not reduced as strongly in women as in men”, according to the HSE.

In one recent case, a son is appealing on behalf of his mother who died of mesothelioma by trying to contact former work colleagues of his father who previously died of bone marrow cancer.

Common practice for contaminated work clothes to be brought home to be cleaned

The son believes that his father’s death was related to contact with asbestos at his workplace, a steel mill, which led to “secondary exposure” fatally affecting his mother. It had been eventually established that she had been most likely exposed to asbestos when dusting the fibres from her husband’s work-clothes each night when he returned home from work.

At many workplaces, there was simply no washing / showering facilities provided and often inadequate protective equipment or clothing. In mesothelioma compensation cases involving secondary exposure, lack of asbestos awareness to the long term, deadly health risks meant that it was common practice for contaminated work clothes and boots to be brought home to be cleaned, and often the hair would be covered in dust too.

Consequently, the wives or daughters would breathe in the airborne fibre particles as they shook out the dust from the asbestos contaminated overalls / work clothes, before also washing the items by hand. Dust would be brushed off from work boots and washed and combed out from the hair.

The court heard that the former steel mill worker had died from a cancer apparently unrelated to asbestos exposure. Ten years later and while still in her early 70s, the mother lost her life to mesothelioma, a cancer that is known to be solely caused by exposure to asbestos. The son is urgently trying to find former workers at his father’s steel mill to supply witness accounts of possible asbestos exposure.

Woman appear to be more visibly impacted by asbestos-related conditions

Use of the mineral fibres and male occupational exposure to asbestos began to decline from the late 1970s onwards in response to mounting evidence of the potential deadly health risks of asbestosis disease and related lung cancers. The most dangerous brown and blue fibres  used in making insulating products were finally banned in the mid 1980s followed by a halt in using white asbestos 15 years later.

Research suggests that the increase in female exposure rates from environmental contact may be the result of a reduction in male exposure rates. Consequently, the rise of incidences where woman appear to be more visibly impacted by asbestos-related conditions prompted clinicians to carry out further investigation. A 1997 study involving female mesothelioma patients found that more than half of those diagnosed with the disease had suffered exposure due to household contact with individuals, such as husbands or sons who worked with asbestos.

There have also been a number of recorded cases of pleural mesothelioma among younger women who recall climbing up on their father’s lap immediately upon returning home from work, and before he was able to remove asbestos-contaminated workclothes or take a wash.

In 1989 a study into “domestic asbestos exposure, lung fibre burden, and pleural mesothelioma in a housewife” concluded that secondary exposure can be just as intense as direct exposure to toxic asbestos. The study found that “household contamination can result in “bystander” exposure levels similar to those found in the industrial setting.”

However, there are several additional factors which been put forward to suggest that, in general, women are at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma cancer.

Female lung volume and retention of fibres

One study concluded that female lung volume influences the build up and retention of fibres and called for more research into the role of body size and “women’s increased susceptibility to mesothelioma cancer”. Research has also strongly suggested that women may also be more prone to developing the peritoneal form of mesothelioma, which forms in the lining of the abdomen rather than in the lung linings.

Recent studies indicate that there has been a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970.

Since 2008 alone, around 1,200 women in the UK have died from mesothelioma, a third of whom were exposed to asbestos either at work or in their immediate environment. Many of the women are known to have worked in buildings where asbestos had been previously installed as insulation and fireproofing material, such as schools, nurseries, hospitals, government and council buildings, offices, factories and department stores.