A brief period of secondary exposure to asbestos was enough to trigger the later development of mesothelioma cancer and the early death of a female garment inspector nearly half a century later. Her husband is completely devastated over how his wife could have suddenly developed symptoms in her early 70s and then lost her life so many years afterwards. Research has found that even a short period of exposure can eventually cause an asbestos-related disease or condition.

Much of Britain’s history of asbestos exposure, which often leads to an asbestosis disease, tends to be associated with an individual’s working life of frequent or regular contact with the deadly fibre insulation. During the 1960s and 70s peak period of use, occupational asbestos exposure is known to have been most prevalent in the construction, shipbuilding, rail and vehicle assembly, and power generation industries. More than 80 per cent of all mesothelioma deaths occurred amongst their male workers.

Wives would breathe in the airborne fibre particles

Up until the most toxic brown and blue asbestos types were banned in the mid 1980s, it was common practice for work clothes and boots to be brought home by husbands to be cleaned as many workplaces simply had no washing / showering facilities. The wives would breathe in the airborne fibre particles when vigorously “shaking out the dust” from the asbestos-contaminated overalls / work clothes before washing the items by hand. Dust would also be brushed off from work boots, and washed and combed out from the hair.

However, medical research leading to better asbestos awareness of the long term health damagers, eventually prompted a decline in widespread asbestos use from the late 1970s. As a result, cases of “secondary exposure” involving wives or daughters who later developed mesothelioma became increasingly visible and more prominently reported.

Garments covered in coal and asbestos dust

In the present tragic case, the secondary exposure did not occur at home but in the workplace. The victim – who was only in her early 20s when she worked at a Nottingham dry cleaning company between April 1968 and January 1969 – inspected the damaged overalls worn at the various mining companies across the region. Despite an initial clean with white spirits, the garments, which arrived in large tubs, were often still covered in a mixture of coal and asbestos dust. Further exposure was believed to have occurred as a result of asbestos used to insulate the pipework throughout the factory.

It was only when the victim developed a tightness in her chest that she visited her GP, where tests revealed that her asbestos exposure nearly 50 years earlier had led to the fatal incurable cancer. The potential risk of inhaled asbestos fibres to turn healthy cells cancerous can lay dormant for around 30 to 40 years or more from the time when the exposures occurred before the first outward signs, such as breathlessness, coughing or chest pains start.

Risk of developing mesothelioma after exposure never reduces

Medical research has previously found that it was men aged under 30 when they were first exposed who were more likely to be at an increased risk of developing an asbestos-related condition later in life. An investigation into twenty years of medical data, which lists over 2,000 males exposed to asbestos, found that the highest incidence of malignant pleural mesothelioma was among those first exposed when they were under 20 years old.

One recent study, which included 862 mesothelioma cases from more than 22,000 individual exposures across Europe, and as far afield as Australia, suggest that the risk of developing mesothelioma after an initial exposure never reduces, regardless of life expectancy.

The research revealed that nearly 45 per cent of pleural (lung lining) mesothelioma cases, and more than 50 per cent of peritoneal (stomach) mesothelioma cases, were diagnosed at least 40 years after a first exposure. Even after 50 years, there were still over 13 per cent of pleural cases and 23 per cent of peritoneal cases recorded. It was also found that the rate and risk of pleural mesothelioma actually intensified for 45 years following a first exposure.

Threefold increase in the overall female death-rate

Secondary exposure is also named alongside environmental exposure to have caused the deaths of around 1,200 female mesothelioma victims since as recently as 2008. According to earlier research, there has been a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970.

Each year around 13,000 deaths from occupational lung disease and cancer are estimated to have been caused by past exposure, primarily to chemicals and dusts at work, which includes mesothelioma fatalities.