The Truth About Women and Asbestos Disease

The Truth About Women and Asbestos Disease

The Truth About Women and Asbestos Disease – It is easy to dismiss asbestos disease as a ‘thing of the past’. After all, the most dangerous types of asbestos (blue and brown asbestos) were banned from importation into and use in the UK in 1985. When the slightly less dangerous white asbestos followed suit in 1999, one could have been forgiven for believing that this extremely useful but highly toxic material was consigned  to being written about in future books on the industrial history of the UK

Sadly, that has not been the case, and indeed those who were in the know about the deadly effects of asbestos exposure on human beings  (of whom there were many) would also have been aware that asbestos disease would blight the lives of many former blue-collar workers for many years to come.

So it is that here in 2021, we are being informed by the latest asbestos disease statistics released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), that in the last recorded year of 2019, there were 5000 deaths from asbestos-related illnesses. Of these, the two most serious asbestos diseases, mesothelioma, and asbestos lung cancer accounted for approximately 2300 deaths each.

What the statistics don’t tell us is that whilst most of those who sadly passed away from the asbestos disease in 2019, would have been diagnosed with their illness in recent years, their exposure to the asbestos fibres that ended up causing their deaths, took place anything between twenty and forty years ago. 

The immensely long period (the ‘latency period’) between exposure and diagnosis of asbestos diseases is the reason for the persistently high numbers of death from asbestos disease and why most people are only diagnosed with the asbestos illness when they are seventy or over.

Women and Asbestos Disease

The 2021 HSE asbestos figures repeat another statistic that remains pretty constant every year, and that is that instances of asbestos deaths are much more prevalent in men than they are in women. Of the 2369 deaths from mesothelioma in the year, 1945 were males. By comparison, 424 women died from the same disease during the same period.

Why do far fewer women die from asbestos disease than men?

The answer lies in the fact that asbestos disease was the scourge of industrial workers up to the late 1980s and early 90s. It is considered to be an industrial disease. 

Asbestos had multiple uses, but its most effective use was as a heat retardant material. It was used to lag pipes and boilers, to insulate railway carriages, it was in cement mixes, electrical components, adhesives, tiles, vinyl products, textiles, gaskets and brake shoes. Even then, the list of uses to which asbestos was put is not exhaustive!

In the 60s and 70s, far fewer women worked on the shop floor than men, certainly once they had families. It was certainly a different era, one where the word ‘equality, was not often uttered. Statistics bear this out.  In 1973 only 20% of women with children up to the age of 9, were working mothers. Compare this to 2017, when there were estimated to be approximately 73% of all mothers in employment.

Women and secondary exposure to asbestos  

Many women got the asbestos disease through what is known as secondary exposure to asbestos. If primary exposure to asbestos was got by workers innocently inhaling asbestos fibres whilst they carried out their workplace duties, secondary exposure occurred when the worker unwittingly carried asbestos home on their work clothes. 

Again, we are transported back to the 60s and 70s when the woman of the house was expected to wash her husband’s or son’s work clothes. In the fledgling pre-washing machine days, this was a chore carried out in the sink.  Sadly, a significant number of women got exposed to asbestos as a result of being in close contact with overalls caked in toxic dust and fibres. 

There are many tragic quirks about the asbestos disease – one is the length of time it takes to get the disease after being exposed to asbestos. Another is that the only asbestos disease that is got from washing work clothes covered in asbestos, is mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer caused only by asbestos exposure. There is currently no cure for the disease, and life expectancy from diagnosis onwards is very poor, at an average of 12 to 21 months.

Secondary asbestos exposure has also been responsible for taking the lives of some of the daughters of asbestos workers, who would eagerly anticipate their dads arriving home from work so they could give them a big hug when they came through the door. Tragically for some, it was this loving gesture that would lead to them dying from an asbestos disease many years later because in cuddling their father each night, they repeatedly inhaled some of the asbestos from his overalls.

Is asbestos disease dying out? 

Instances of new cases of the asbestos disease are expected to start falling in the next few years as we get further away from the date asbestos was finally banned. However, worryingly there is still a considerable amount of asbestos in the fabric of both public and private older buildings. If asbestos is left untouched in buildings, it does not generally constitute a health hazard. However, it can become dangerous if it gets damaged or as it starts to fall into disrepair. 

Whilst compensation cannot bring back those who have died of asbestos disease, it can help to provide for their families or if it is recovered whilst the asbestos sufferer is still alive, make their final days more comfortable and reassure them that those left behind are being looked after financially. 

Recovering asbestos compensation against former employers going back over many years can be complicated but is by no means impossible as long as a specialist firm of asbestos disease compensation solicitors is engaged to act on behalf of the asbestos victim or their family. 

Poppy Watt

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