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Mesothelioma and Women: Closing the Gender Gap

mesothelioma and women, mesothelioma affecting women, women with mesothelioma

Mesothelioma has typically been referred to as a“male cancer.” However, there is also a relationship between mesothelioma and women as they are also impacted by the deadly cancer. Recently, several studies have been conducted to discover exactly how mesothelioma affects women. In fact, women make up roughly one-fourth of the mesothelioma cases. The rate of mesothelioma cases in women is on the rise, and effectively closing the gender gap. 

Women are predominately employed in the blue-collar workforce, but the high-risk occupations are still dominated by men. Breaking the traditional modes to asbestos exposure in women, exposure has been found outside of the high-risk occupations primarily held by men. Women are also exposed to asbestos in beauty products, such as talc in baby powder and other cosmetics. 

There is no amount of asbestos that is considered safe. While higher levels of exposure increase one’s chances of contracting the disease, light inhalation of the toxic mineral can also lead to mesothelioma, cancer has a lengthy latency period. It can take up to 50 years to start presenting symptoms. This fact alone is why there is such a high volume of mesothelioma diagnosis today. This is especially true among veterans who were continuously exposed to asbestos. 

More Cases of Mesothelioma in Women are Starting to Surface

More and more cases of mesothelioma in women are starting to show. There are many sources of exposure to asbestos to blame. As with any cancer, it does not discriminate. Everyone, at some point in their life, is exposed to asbestos. This is because low levels of the toxin are present in the water, soil, and air. Individuals coming into contact with low and naturally occurring asbestos do not usually become ill. 

According to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “[p]eople who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they work directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact.”

Mesothelioma and Women in Construction 

Males still dominate the majority of mesothelioma cases. Men today, and in the past have worked in high-risk occupations that put them in the direct line of exposure to asbestos. Males were routinely exposed to the mineral, producing a greater chance of later developing mesothelioma. Women’s exposure to asbestos breaks free of the traditional notion of being employed in an asbestos-tainted workplace. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency of the United States Department of Labor, “[w]hile both men and women working in construction face many of the same risks, there are some unique issues that are of greater concern to women.”

In 2010, 31% of women worked in construction compared to 1985, where women made up 15% of the construction occupation. According to the 2013 publication produced by the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), “[t]hese changes apparently resulted from the impact of technological advancements: a reduced need for administrative support staff due to office automation, combined with an increased demand for managerial and professional skills in this industry.” Moreover, the advancement in education and ability among women is also suspected of contributing to the shift. The publication further provides that, “…nearly 147,000 women were employed as painters, carpenters, repair workers, electricians, drywall installers, truck drivers, heating and air conditioning mechanics, plumbers, and a small portion of other occupations.

Fast forward to nearly a decade later, the trends have again shifted. The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) reported that in 2018 there were an estimated 10,692,000 million American workers in construction. Of the ten million, 971,000 were women employed in the construction industry compared to the 9,721,000 employed men. The percentage of women classified as construction managers by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has grown from 7.7% in 2018 to 10% in 2019. 

Other High-Risk Occupations 

Women have made their presence known in “atypical” workplace, normally viewed as a “man’s job.” Construction is not the only potentially hazardous occupation for women. Women have accounted for nearly 28% of the manufacturing workforce and roughly 13% of the mining industry. Women make up 5.7% of firefighter occupations, and 0.3% are employed as mechanics- increasing the occurrence of mesothelioma in women. asee

Women and Secondhand Exposure to Asbestos 

Several decades ago, women were predominantly homemakers. Their husbands or significant others worked in high-risk occupations before the exposure to asbestos was regulated. Miners would bring home asbestos fibers on their clothes that would transfer to others who came in contact with them or their clothes. For example, giving a hug or doing laundry put women and other family members at risk of coming into contact with asbestos. According to a source, “[t]ake-home asbestos exposure through laundering contaminated clothing causes mesothelioma decades later.”

Washington State Take-Home Asbestos Case Returns a $3.5 Million Verdict 

A notable case related to secondhand exposure comes from Washington state. Plaintiff Barbra Brandes’ husband worked as an operator at the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) Cherry Point oil refinery. Her husband worked for the refinery for five years. The defendant in this matter was Brand insulations who were contracted to install insulation at the refinery in 1971. At this time, asbestos exposure was not regulated, and it was not even identified as a carcinogen.

 Mr. Raymond Brandes spent his days installing insulation, and the dust propelled microscopic asbestos fibers would cling to this clothing. Each night he would return home in his dust-covered work clothes. Ms. Brandes would shake his clothes to get rid of the excess dust, exposing her to asbestos fibers. 

It was not until February of 2014 when Barbra Brandes began experiencing symptoms. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma attacks the lining of the lungs. 

Raymond and Barbra Brands decided to take legal action in August of 2014 against seven defendants. The Seattle Times reported that the complaint stated that the defendants “’ and/or their predecessors -in-interests’ had ‘manufactured, sold or distributed asbestos-containing products or products that were used in conjunction with asbestos.’” The lawsuit also included counts of negligence, willful or wanton misconduct, product liability, and conspiracy. 

Ms. Brandes lost her battle to mesothelioma in April of 2015, right before the closing arguments in the case. The trial lasted two weeks. Ultimately, the jury found Brand, one of the defendants, liable of negligence and determined that Brand’s negligence was the direct and proximate cause of Ms. Brandes mesothelioma diagnosis. The jury awarded the estate of Barbara Brands $3.5 million, which remains the largest verdict of secondhand mesothelioma case in Washington state’s history. 

Other Notable Mesothelioma Settlements 

In 2011, a Missouri judge authorized a $10 million settlement to a courthouse employee. Nancy Lopez was exposed to asbestos fibers during a renovation job performed by U.S. Engineering Company. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Lopez was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Later, a couple of other employees filed a lawsuit against U.S. Engineering Company. The plaintiffs secured an $80 million settlement. 

There has been a noticeable increase in the number of secondhand mesothelioma cases. In 2018, a New Jersey jury awarded $117 Million to a couple finding both Johnson & Johnson and Imerys Talc America liable for distributing asbestos-containing products.

Women and Non-Occupational Exposure to Asbestos 

A 2018 study researched the gender differences between 2000-2017 of patients diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. The study found that “…29 cases of MPM, of which 38% occurred in women. Domestic environments were the most important source of asbestos exposure for women (36%) whereas the vast majority of men cases (67%) were related to occupational exposure. In a significant proportion of women (54%) no source of asbestos exposure could be identified.” The study concluded that women did not fit within the traditional malignant pleural mesothelioma profile stating, “[w]omen demonstrated a worse 1-year survival rate, which may be attributed to the worse performance status at diagnosis, and lower proportion of women treated with chemotherapy.”

A research project conducted by the Journal of Clinical Oncology studied malignant mesothelioma in 91 women in relation to environmental exposure of asbestos. It provided that the majority of women contracting mesothelioma was not from an occupational hazard. In fact, 64% of female malignant mesothelioma patients experienced non-occupational exposure to asbestos. 

It further concluded that nearly 1/5 of the women studied only endured environmental exposure to the carcinogen. This was because the women lived in close proximity to an asbestos producing industry. The researchers stated that “[e]nvironmental asbestos exposure is a serious risk factor for mm in women. Primary asbestos exposure, inferring more intense exposure through occupation, may predispose to peritoneal mesothelioma in women.” 

Another study concluded that most women who do develop mesothelioma do so without the traditional occupational exposure to asbestos. The research resulted in finding that nearly 50% of women experienced “domestic exposure” through contact with their first-degree relatives, such as their husbands or sons.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma in Women

Peritoneal mesothelioma is mesothelioma that invades the peritoneum. The peritoneum is the lining of the abdominal cavity. Of the four types of mesothelioma, peritoneal is the second most common type of mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma makes up 75% of mesothelioma cases and is the most common form of the disease. Peritoneal mesothelioma accounts for 20% of all mesothelioma cases. Women are two times more likely to contract and die of peritoneal mesothelioma per year in comparison to pleural mesothelioma. 

The number of peritoneal mesothelioma cases among women has been steadily increasing since 2011. It is believed that in most of these cases that at some point in the patient’s life, they swallowed toxic asbestos fibers. These carcinogens cannot be seen with the naked eye. By swallowing the fibers, they make their way into the peritoneal, where they can cling to the membrane for decades. These toxins can later form into tumors leading to a terminal mesothelioma diagnosis. 

The symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma can mimic other medical conditions. A few of the most common symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include: 

  • Tenderness or swelling around the abdomen
  • Constipation 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Abdominal pain 

Since these early symptoms can be several other issues, peritoneal mesothelioma is commonly misdiagnosed. Another reason it is misdiagnosed is that it is rare and is typically not looked into until all other possibilities are ruled out. Some common misdiagnosis includes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gallstones, appendicitis, or ovarian cancer. 

Patients with peritoneal mesothelioma generally have a greater life expectancy and a better prognosis than patients diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. 

Duke University’s Groundbreaking Study of Mesothelioma in Women

Duke University recently conducted the largest study in the history of mesothelioma in women. A recent publication by the American Journal of Surgical Pathology breaks down the results of the 354 women with malignant mesothelioma studied. The research team studied women between the ages of 19 and 93. The average age of the women studied was 60 years old. This age is lower than the average age of a mesothelioma diagnosis in women as it is typically 65-72 years of age. The study found that women were ten years younger than the average that was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma. 

The study aimed to expose the differences in cancer between men and women cases. The research established that 78% of the malignant mesothelioma cases studied turned out to be pleural mesothelioma (mesothelioma of the lungs) and had an average age of 65 years old. Conversely, 22% of the cases studied revealed that women were diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma (mesothelioma of the abdomen) and had an average age of 52 years old. 

According to the study’s results, “[a] majority of our cases were exposed to asbestos through a household contact. Asbestosis and parietal pleural plaque were present in 5% and 50% of cases with data, respectively. The findings further concluded that “[f]iber analysis data was available in 67 cases; 38 cases had elevated asbestos fiber burden, and tremolite was the most common asbestos fiber type detected. Commercial and noncommercial amphibole asbestos fibers were elevated in nearly equal numbers of cases.”

Johnson & Johnson Remains in the Spotlight 

Johnson & Johnson has remained in the hot seat for the suspected presence of asbestos in their products. Johnson & Johnson was recently ordered by a New Jersey Judge to pay out a $750 million verdict. The trial was especially prominent because it was the first time Johnson & Johnson’s Chief Executive, Alex Gorksy, testified in court. Gorksy testified that the company took all the necessary steps to make certain that its products did not contain asbestos. 

The jury, however, did not see it that way. They found that Johnson & Johnson’s products were the direct and proximate cause of the plaintiffs’ contracting pleural mesothelioma and that the company’s conduct was wanton and in disregard of their rights or malicious.  

Johnson & Johnson has announced they will appeal the verdicts. The company contends they have acted adequately for over 40 years, and those independent labs have tested and confirmed their products do not contain asbestos. They further exclaim that their products are safe and do not cause cancer. 

According to a source, “[a]bout 16,800 plaintiffs have filed lawsuits against J&J in U.S. state and federal courts alleging the company’s talcum powders caused ovarian cancer or mesothelioma, and J&J failed to warn consumers of this risk properly.” 

Asbestos in Children’s Makeup 

Asbestos has been found in alarming amounts in cosmetics across the globe. Recently, a test performed on a children’s makeup kit revealed high levels of the carcinogen. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) issued a press release on January 16, 2020, alerting consumers to the new findings. 

Scott Faber, EWG’s Senior Vice President for Government Affairs, stated, “[i]t seems every time someone tests talc-based toys for the deadly carcinogen, they find it.” He warned parents to consider the risks before buying any makeup or toys made with talc as they could be contaminated with the toxin. The press release further warns that makeup kits are often made of potentially hazardous and cheap ingredients that could contain asbestos or other toxic chemicals. 

The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release in 2019, warning consumers about certain cosmetics that may contain asbestos. In September of 2019, Beauty Plus Global recalled four of their cosmetic products because they tested positive for asbestos. In June of 2019, the FDA also advised consumers not to use certain products listed in the press release because they may also contain asbestos. This was after a voluntary recall by Beauty Plus Global and Claire’s Stores, Inc. 

press release issued on March 5, 2019, stated, “[t]he FDA sampled and had tested targeted cosmetic products following reports of contaminated cosmetics marketed by Claire’s. Testing was conducted on behalf of the FDA by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and AMA Analytical Services, Inc.” The FDA again advised consumers to stop using the products. 

The Future of Mesothelioma in Women

Since Duke University’s publication, more research is expected to commence. Research has already shown that most women in the study with pleural mesothelioma displayed “objective markers.” Women with roles in high-risk occupations were exposed to higher volumes of asbestos and demonstrated similar “objective markers” to men. 40 cases out of the 354 causes exhibited direct occupational exposure. 

Overall, most women exposed to asbestos was through “take-home” asbestos or household contact. 200 out of the 354 mesothelioma cases studied were related to household exposure. Researchers are predicting that even though men are diagnosed with mesothelioma more often than women, more cases in women will continue to increase.

Future cases in women are expected to arise not only from household exposure but also from their exposure in cosmetics and other asbestos-contaminated products. Studies have shown that women have a greater survival rate than men in similar stages, age, and treatment of their mesothelioma. 

If you begin to present with symptoms of mesothelioma and have been exposed to asbestos, you should set up an appointment with your healthcare provider. Even low amounts of exposure can result in a mesothelioma diagnosis.

If you have already been diagnosed with mesothelioma, finding the right lawyer can help you explore any legal avenue you may have. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer, and new developments are shining through each day. It is important to stay informed on the latest news and advances in the mesothelioma sphere. 

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