Even in the light of today’s knowledge and raised asbestos awareness it can sometimes still be assumed that mesothelioma, and asbestosis disease in general, are conditions which mostly affect men above the age of 75. While incidence rates for mesothelioma in the UK are highest in people aged 75-89, it still only represents 50 per cent of around the 2,500 cases diagnosed each year, according to latest available statistics at Cancer Research UK.

In the decades following the first UK asbestos ban in the mid 1980s, and the subsequent decline of widespread industrial use, cases of asbestos-related diseases among men and women in their 50s and 60s started to become more apparent. It was found that the mesothelioma mortality rate in the 45-54 and 55-64 age groups had “not reduced as strongly in women” as in men, over the previous four decades, according to a report by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), 2013.

Threefold increase in overall female death-rate

Both ‘environmental’ and ‘secondary’ exposures have been attributed to the deaths of 1,200 women – around 1 in six – between 2008 and 2014. There are now more than 400 female deaths from mesothelioma each year, say the HSE, and research has also revealed a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970. But probably the most worrying of all in recent years, are the reports of young women aged – just in their 30s and 40s – who are falling victim to the fatal incurable cancer.

The focus of concern centres on exactly how the victim, which in many cases is a female, was exposed to asbestos. In the most recent example, a single mother was barely 30 years old when diagnosed with peritoneal (stomach) mesothelioma when a tumour was discovered during gallbladder surgery. Naturally, the mother said she was completely “stunned” when the diagnosis of mesothelioma was confirmed, explaining that “it’s something you hear in older people, not younger people”.

To date, exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, and in trying to understand where contact may have taken place, the victim believes exposure either occurred when she was a pupil at school or while working in public houses.

Asbestos use in decline by the time victim was born

The mid 1980s ban on brown and blue asbestos meant that its widespread use in building and construction materials as a material strengthener and fireproof insulation had already peaked and was in decline by the time the victim was born.

However, even after this time, and into the 1990s, around 25,000 tons of white chrysotile asbestos were still being imported and could still be used to insulate ceilings and walls, as well as lining heating and air conditioning systems, pipes and boilers. Both the HSE and the construction industry repeatedly warn the public that asbestos should always be suspected of being present in any public, private or commercial premises built up until the year 2000.

Secondary exposure was known to be caused by women who were directly in contact with asbestos when handling contaminated overall or workclothes brought home every evening by a husband or father who worked in asbestos using factories. Historical environmental exposures can be more difficult to trace.

Asbestos dust is released during renovations at a workplace

In some cases, exposure occurred when asbestos dust is released during renovations at a workplace, such as a department store,  which caused asbestos dust to be released into the surrounding environment. In one recent case, a 48 year old woman believed that exposure took place during on-site demolition work between 1983 and 1990. Another female mesothlioma victim, aged just 46, worked as an administrator at a west country prison between 1997 and 2007. Before passing away, she described how she would often come into contact with technicians carrying out repair work on pipes lagged with asbestos.

An estimated 8 in ten of all schools across Britain still contain significant amounts of asbestos, and the cause of a significant rise of the Proportional Mortality Ratio for female primary school teachers between 2002-2010. In 2013, evidence given to the Education Select Committee estimated that, “in Britain between 200 and 300 people will die each year of mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure experienced as a child at school…”

Earlier generations of men employed during the 1950s, 60s and 70s in shipbuilding, engineering and construction, where asbestos was commonly used, are in decline. But researchers forecast the legacy of Britain’s asbestos use is set to continue until 2020 or even 2030. Tragically, “unexplained” environmental exposures, which have occurred at school or in the workplace seem likely to be bring more sudden devastation to the lives of an even younger and, increasingly, female age group.