Women are at a much lower risk of developing mesothelioma then men. The major reason for this is that many more men once worked in jobs where asbestos exposure was commonplace and inhalation of the toxic mineral was an everyday occurrence. Though women also worked in factories and shipyards, especially during World War II, they remain much less likely to develop the disease due to on-the-job exposure.
Nonetheless, several cases of asbestos cancer among women (about 8 percent annually) are diagnosed each year and many of these women are discovered to be victims of what is known as “secondary exposure”. That phrase refers to the fact that these women did not directly encounter the material but, rather, were exposed to it in a secondhand fashion that, nevertheless, resulted in inhalation of dangerous fibers.
Secondary Household Exposure
For decades, the most likely way for a woman to develop mesothelioma cancer was through exposure from a husband, father, son, or other household relative who worked directly with hazardous asbestos. Some studies call this “domestic” exposure. A 1997 study conducted by Durham (VA) and Duke University Medical Centers (Roggli et al) involving women with mesothelioma determined that more than half of those diagnosed with the disease had suffered exposure due to household contact with individuals who worked with asbestos.
A common scenario involved a housewife who greeted her asbestos fiber-laden husband (son, father, etc.) each day when he came home from work. Usually, these workers were given no opportunity to change clothes or shower before they headed home; hence, their clothing, hair, and body were often covered with dust when they arrived. The women were charged with the responsibility of shaking out the dust and laundering the clothes. Some did this every night. Once the clothes were shaken, the tiny fibers would become airborne and were easy to inhale, especially in a small enclosed space like a laundry room, where ventilation was likely to be poor. After years of performing this task, the woman would begin to develop some pulmonary distress, like coughing or difficulty breathing. Decades later, she would be diagnosed with mesothelioma disease.
There have also been a number of documented cases of pleural mesothelioma among younger women who recall climbing up on Dad’s lap when he got home from work – before he got cleaned up – snuggling with him while he read a story or they talked about their day. The closeness resulted in exposure to the dust and the inhalation of sharp asbestos fibers. For many of these women, this simple act of affection resulted in a diagnosis of mesothelioma many years later.
While it may seem unlikely that “a little dust” would cause such concern, a 1989 study by Huncharek et al (“Domestic asbestos exposure, lung fiber burden, and pleural mesothelioma in a housewife”) suggested that “household contamination can result in "bystander" exposure levels similar to those found in the industrial setting.” In other words, secondary exposure can be just as intense as direct exposure to toxic asbestos.
Secondary Environmental Exposure
In places like Libby, Montana, where an asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine caused hundreds of deaths, women also died due to secondary exposure. Those who didn’t work at the mine may have been affected by fibers that commonly circulated in the outside air during the years the mine was in operation. In addition, women who once lived close to a factory that manufactured asbestos-containing products may have also been exposed in this manner.
In some cases, but rarely in the United States, women may be victims of secondary exposure caused by natural deposits of asbestos that may allow dangerous fibers to be released into the air. While there are indeed natural deposits of asbestos in the U.S., primarily in the western portion of the country, only a handful of cases have been attributed to exposure to these deposits.
Secondary Exposure and Legal Rights
Over the past few decades, the law has recognized the validity of secondary asbestos exposure and more and more women have been able to garner compensation for their injuries and suffering. In fact, any woman who was been diagnosed with pleural, pericardial or peritoneal mesothelioma due to secondhand asbestos may be able to receive funds to help with medical bills or other expenses related to the disease, including loss of income.