Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Accordingly, most victims worked in jobs that exposed them to asbestos. These include jobs in industries such as mining, construction, steelwork, shipbuilding and manufacturing.
However, most industries stopped using asbestos several decades ago. This means we’ve seen gradual declines in the death rates. But the deaths haven’t decreased everywhere. Mesothelioma deaths among women have increased by 25% over the past 20 years.
A troubling legacy of asbestos exposure
A report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that mesothelioma deaths rose among women from 489 in 1999 to 614 in 2020. This was a troubling trend, but the full story is quite a bit more complicated.
Many of those complications owe to limited data. But many owe to the long periods asbestos victims may live with the fibers in their body before they develop mesothelioma or other diseases. These complications make their way both into the CDC’s newer report and its 2017 report on mortality rates:
- Between 1999 and 2015, the total number of mesothelioma deaths among men increased
- Conversely, the death rates dropped for all but one male age groups
- The death rate for men ages 85 and older rose significantly
- Similarly, 90.7% of the women who died from mesothelioma were ages 55 and older
- Women were 10 times more likely to suffer from mesothelioma if they had a husband or father that worked in an asbestos-related industry
- Most of the women who died from mesothelioma were homemakers (22.8%), teachers (5.6%) and registered nurses (4.9%)
- The mesothelioma death rates were highest among women from seven states: Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin
Of course, these findings only become helpful once we begin to interpret them. Thankfully, the researchers also did some of that work for us.
They pointed out that these statistics reflect more than just the delayed onset of mesothelioma. They also reflect:
- The population is aging. The fact people who suffered asbestos exposure are living longer means that more of them are at-risk.
- The lower death rates among younger people reflects the reduction of asbestos use since 1973.
- The states with the highest mesothelioma death rates for women featured more shipbuilding and vermiculite mining.
- The death rates among homemakers, teachers and nurses remind us that asbestos poses a risk even to those who don’t work directly with the fibers. There are risks as old building materials break down and from the fibers workers may carry home on their clothing.
Among other things, the report offers a sober reminder that old asbestos continues to pose a risk. Bans ensure that most newer materials are free of asbestos. However, asbestos saw extensive use for many decades. Usage peaked in 1973, and many older buildings still feature asbestos-laden materials.
What can women do?
If nothing else, the report reinforces the fact that mesothelioma is not exclusively a male disease. It can affect anyone exposed to asbestos. Accordingly, women with a history of asbestos exposure—or whose husbands or fathers worked with asbestos—should let their doctors know.
Meanwhile, it’s important that anyone who lives or works in an older building keep an eye out for any “friable” materials that might contain asbestos. The CDC says that asbestos-laden materials do not pose a threat until they start to break down. At that point, the fibers can get loose. That’s when they become dangerous.
Finally, any woman who receives a mesothelioma diagnosis should seek quality medical treatment. It may also be possible to seek compensation from the manufacturers or companies that exposed you to the asbestos.