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International Women’s Day 2017

Having attended the brilliant #IWD2017 event organised by Doughty Street Chambers last Saturday and the #March4women event last Sunday, my thoughts on this International Women’s Day 2017 turn to all those women around the world, who have been and continue to be affected by asbestos.

The latest HSE statistics ( Source:” Mesothelioma in Great Britain 1868-2014) show that between 2002-2010, 1332 women in the UK aged between 16 and 74 died as a result of mesothelioma. That’s 148 a year, though the numbers have been increasing year on year. The total may in fact be higher as in some cases, particularly where the source of the asbestos exposure which caused the illness is not known, the death from mesothelioma may not be referred to the Coroner for investigation and officially recorded.

According to the 2016 National Lung Cancer Audit for 2014, there were 2179 deaths due to pleural mesothelioma, 83.4% of whom were male and 16.6% female.

There is a tendency to think that it is men who are affected by mesothelioma due to their having traditionally done work in industrial settings where, between the 1950s and 1990s, the use of asbestos was prolific, predominantly as an insulator or fire retardant. However, whilst it has long been recognised (since at least 1965) that women who were in contact with family members who worked among asbestos, were at risk of developing mesothelioma themselves, the number of women succumbing to the disease through their own work is staggering.

The HSE statistics show that women in the following occupations have the highest death rate as a result of mesothelioma: Secretaries, cleaners, sales assistants, healthcare workers, factory workers and teachers.

In handling cases for women with mesothelioma for over 15 years, it has been surprising at times, to learn how they have come into contact with asbestos dust, whether through being lagger’s mate during the second world war when men were called up; through assembling gas masks containing blue asbestos filters in Boots factories during the war; working in textile mills on looms powered by steam, the lines being insulated with asbestos; working as nurses in old hospital buildings and using service tunnels containing asbestos-lagged pipes.

In terms of secondary exposure of women through contact with family members exposed to asbestos at work, a 1989 study (Huncharek et al “Domestic asbestos exposure, lung fibre burden, and pleural mesothelioma in a housewife”) suggested that “household contamination could result in “bystander” exposure levels similar to those found in the industrial setting.” In other words, living in a contaminated household can be as dangerous as actually working with asbestos.

One US study from 1997 found that nearly half of the women who had contracted mesothelioma had suffered exposure due to household contact with individuals who worked with asbestos. Typically, these women did the family laundry and shook out the contaminated clothes before washing them, breathing in large quantities of asbestos fibres in the process.

Cases have been reported of wives contracting the disease from hugging their husbands as they came home from work, or of children who have been exposed from sitting on their father’s lap after he returned from work.
The indirect nature of the exposure also means that women are at a legal disadvantage compared to men when it comes to proving a company or companies are responsible for their asbestos exposure.

Whether employers should be held responsible for harm to the families of employees in these circumstances is an issue that has been furiously litigated by employers’ liability insurers. The insurers have argued that employers could not have possibly foreseen the risk to the health of family members of workers negligently exposed to asbestos, especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when most of this exposure would have taken place and when they contend the risks of asbestos were ‘not widely known’.

The issue came to a head in the the case of Maguire v Harland & Wolff, which established October 1965 as the date by which employers were deemed to know of the risk of mesothelioma to families of workers exposed to asbestos. Sadly, many women were exposed to asbestos indirectly before that date and hence unable to seek compensation or continued to be indirectly exposed to asbestos for several decades longer.

Finally, I am thinking of all those women who have lost husbands, brothers, sons and other family members to this terrible disease; women whose lives have been irrevocably changed with devastating consequences, simply because they lived with someone who worked among asbestos.