Women and Mesothelioma: History of Exposure
A mention of the disease mesothelioma normally conjures up images of men working in shipyards or toiling in vermiculite mines in small towns throughout the U.S. While it's true, however, that men are the most prominent victims of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, women are not immune from developing them.
As a matter of fact, cases of women with mesothelioma are on the rise as doctors and others recognize that the female sex is highly susceptible to the disease, mostly through secondhand exposure; that is, exposure to a family member who worked with the toxic mineral on a daily basis. However, secondhand exposure is not the only way in which women can develop such diseases.
Natural Exposure to Asbestos
Throughout history, in certain countries and cultures, exposure to asbestos occurred through common household tasks. For example, women in several Mediterranean countries, like Turkey and Greece, often oversaw the task of "whitewashing" the home.
To those who live in modern times, the term whitewashing usually refers to applying a coat of white paint. Historically, however, whitewashing in these countries referred to the process of using white (asbestos-containing) soil to whitewash a house. It was also commonly used as plastering material for both interior and exterior stucco. (Such asbestos-laced soil is naturally occurring in many of these areas.) The toxic mineral was also used on roofs for insulation and prevention of water leakage. Women (and others) were exposed to dust emanating from the walls and the act of "sweeping" the room with a broom caused more dangerous fibers to circulate. Alarmingly, the white asbestos soil was also sometimes used in place of baby powder, exposing yet more individuals to this toxic mineral.
Studies done in these regions show an extremely high rate of natural asbestos exposure among women and many individuals are still living in and caring for homes where asbestos is present.
On-the-Job Asbestos Exposure
Men weren't the only ones who were exposed to asbestos at work. Women, for example, made up the bulk of employees in laundry facilities where asbestos was ever present. Because asbestos was such a good insulator, its use was commonplace in large commercial dryers and other appliances where heat and fire was a threat. Often, asbestos insulation was torn or damaged, causing airborne fibers to circulate. Those who cleaned the facility were also exposed while sweeping asbestos dust from the floors.
Asbestos was also used in cosmetics and women who worked in factories that manufactured asbestos-containing make-up and powders may have inhaled the mineral on a daily basis. Protective gear was not provided so exposure occurred regularly.
During World War II, women were exposed to asbestos through their work in factories around the country. Because they assumed many of the jobs usually done by the thousands of men who were off fighting the war, exposure was more commonplace during this time period, especially among civilian women who worked in shipyards, steel-producing facilities, and power plants, where asbestos was abundant.
- Dodson, R. and Hammar, S. Asbestos: Risk Assessment, Epidemiology, and Health Effects. Taylor & Francis: Boca Raton. 2006.
- Stahel RA,Weder W, Felip E; ESMO Guidelines Working Group. Malignant pleural mesothelioma: ESMO clinical recommendations for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Clinic and Policlinic of Oncology, University Hospital of Zurich, Switzerland. 2008.
- Pass, I., Vogelzang, N., Carbone, M. Malignant Mesothelioma: Advances in Pathogenesis, Diagnosis, and Transitional Therapies. Springer: New York. 2005.
Last modified: February 15, 2010.