The good news is that Americans have become more and more aware of the dangers of asbestos. This may be part of the reason that we’ve seen the rate of mesothelioma diagnoses trend downward since the early 1990s. The bad news—for women—is that that downward trend owes entirely to the lower rate of male diagnoses.
While we see mesothelioma affecting a smaller and smaller portion of the male population, the rate of women affected remains pretty much the same as it has since the late 1980s. As a result, women now account for roughly one-quarter of all new mesothelioma cases.
Why is the mesothelioma gender gap closing?
It used to be that women only counted for 1 out of every 5 mesothelioma cases. Recently, the ratio has risen to 1 in 4. This owes to several factors:
- An increased number of women in the workforce. While the most at-risk industries are still largely male-dominated, women now account for a larger percentage of the workforce than before. Even in some of the most at-risk industries, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that women make up roughly 28% of all manufacturers, 13% of all miners, 9% of everyone in the construction industry and 6% of all firefighters.
- Mesothelioma takes a long time to develop. The first signs of cancer often don’t appear until decades after the asbestos exposure. However, these latency periods can vary with the severity of the exposure and the types of asbestos fibers involved. Because many women suffered their exposure to asbestos through secondary means, such as washing clothes laced with the fibers, they may be developing the cancer later. If this is the case, it may simply take time for the rate of female diagnoses to drop as male diagnoses did several years back.
- The data from the National Cancer Institute shows that the 5-year survival rate for women is more than double that for men. This statistic measures survival from the diagnosis, rather than the onset of the disease, so it’s not the reason we’ve seen an increased ratio of female diagnoses. However, it does mean that women now represent a little over one-third of all living mesothelioma victims.
- The homes and work environments where women spend more of their time are getting older. Older offices, schools and homes were often built with materials that contain asbestos. Though the EPA claims these materials should be safe so long as they remain intact, renovations and aging may damage them and release their asbestos fibers into the air. As the buildings get older, there’s a greater chance that the women who work in them may suffer from exposure to asbestos.
What does this mean?
Women don’t always fit the mold of the standard mesothelioma victim. Doctors might expect to diagnose mesothelioma in a retired male shipyard worker, but they might be more likely to look to other causes for the same symptoms when they find them in a female teacher or stay-at-home mom. Still, while women may not work as often in the high-risk industries where asbestos is common, the EPA reminds us, there is no safe level of exposure. Secondary exposure can be just as serious, but women may need to push harder for an accurate diagnosis and treatment than their male counterparts.