Neglect of health and safety practices in many British workplaces throughout the second half of the 20th century continues to cause devastation to thousands of former workers and their families. In the latest case of “secondary exposure”, a woman aged just in her early 60s was diagnosed with mesothelioma caused by washing her late husband’s overalls during the 1970s and 80s.

We increasingly see men who began their working lives in the 1970s and 80s being diagnosed with mesothelioma or asbestosis disease. However, there is also a noticeable rise in the numbers of women who fall victim to the deadly cancer as a result of non-occupational or secondary exposure. In the last ten years, the deaths of around 1,200 women are thought to have been the result of both environmental and ‘secondary’ exposures to asbestos, and there has been a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970.

The number of male workers who were employed in heavy industries, such as shipbuilding, power plants, foundries, railway engineering, vehicle assembly or building where asbestos was in frequent use are in decline. Consequently, cases of “secondary exposure” suffered by their remaining wives or daughters are  increasingly reported as the basis of a mesothelioma claim.

Widow left trying to understand how exposure may have occurred

In the current case, the wife of a former electrical contractor was diagnosed with the fatal cancer of the lung linings while still in her early 60s. As is often reported following a diagnosis, the presence of an asbestos-related disease was a complete shock. Her husband had passed away 15 years previously and his widow is now left trying to understand how exposure may have occurred 40 years earlier. It is her belief that she breathed in the asbestos dust on her late husband’s overalls that she regularly washed but had no idea that the dust may have been asbestos.

The introduction of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, required employers to “conduct their work in such a way that their employees will not be exposed to health and safety risks and to provide information to other people about their workplace which might affect their health and safety.” Despite of the legislation and the increasing asbestos awareness to the fatal health dangers of exposure to the fibre dust, it was often common practice for company employers to knowingly ignore safety regulations.

As a result, thousands of industrial, manufacturing and engineering workers would handle products made with asbestos fibres without breathing masks or protective equipment. The men would simply work in their own clothes or wear standard overalls. In many workplaces, there was also no washing / showering facilities provided.

Half of female mesothelioma patients exposed to asbestos

Each evening, wives or daughters would vigorously “shake out the dust” from the asbestos contaminated overalls / work clothes their husbands brought home. It would almost be impossible not to inhale the airborne fibre particles before washing the items by hand. Dust would also be brushed off from work boots and washed and combed out of the hair. Research carried out in 1997 found that more than half of the female mesothelioma patients in the study group were exposed to asbestos as a result of household contact with husbands or sons who worked with asbestos.

As is now often the case, the wife of the former electrician is now appealing to anyone who remembers working with her late husband to come forward with their recollection of working conditions.

While a Freedom of Information request by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) recently confirmed that there are still a high number of female victims who are diagnosed with mesothelioma aged between 70 and 74, there is growing evidence of the cancer appearing in a younger age group.

Female mesothelioma double the diagnosis rate of the US and EU

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. A 2013 report by HSE “tracing 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.”

It is well- known that the potential for mesothelioma to develop can take between 15 to 50 years or more from the period of initial exposure. While many victims are often diagnosed in their 70s and 80s following retirement, the numbers of women in their 50s or 60s reported with the disease are increasingly on the rise.