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#BreaktheBias: Women supporting victims of asbestos-related disease

By Hannah Wall, an expert asbestos-related disease lawyer at Irwin Mitchell 

When the general public think of victims of asbestos disease, my guess is that the assumption would be that it affects men, who worked in heavy industry, many years ago. 

However, that is only part of the story. In fact, not only are we seeing an increasing number of cases of women who have been diagnosed with an asbestos disease, women have massively contributed to the research and support of those who have been exposed to asbestos.

Housewives' domestic exposure to asbestos

In 1965, Dr Muriel Newhouse and Dr Hilda Thompson, following detailed research, established a link between mesothelioma and East London housewives’ domestic exposure as a result of washing their husband’s overalls. None had any known occupational asbestos exposure of their own. Since their pioneering work which was to form the basis of asbestos policy, we have learned to understand the risks of small or transient exposures to asbestos dust.

Paying tribute to safety campaigners

Throughout the 20th and 21st century, thousands of British women have died as a result of asbestos diseases. On International Women’s Day it is important to pay tribute to these women and also women who have become activists and campaigners as a result of their own personal experience. 

Nancy Tait’s husband, Bill, died as a result of mesothelioma in 1968. Bill’s employer denied liability and as a result his wife Nancy became an eminent campaigner and founded the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases (SPAID), the first group to support victims, in 1978.

Mavis Nye developed mesothelioma 49 years after her husband Ray had worked with asbestos whilst an apprentice in the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham. Diagnosed in 2009, Mavis has since been an active campaigner, setting up the Mavis Nye Foundation to help inspire victims of mesothelioma and show that there is light at the end of the tunnel. She was even added to the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2021 for her support for those with mesothelioma.

Increase in school or office workers being diagnosed with mesothelioma

In my own experience, we see an increasing number of clients who fall out of the traditional “heavy industry” scenario. We are frequently asked to advise female teachers or office workers who have developed mesothelioma where there has been no immediate or obvious recollection of exposure to asbestos.

In a case currently being dealt with by my firm, we are pursuing a case on behalf of the family of an office worker who was employed as a photography assistant by a polytechnic from the mid-1970’s until 1999.  She was diagnosed with mesothelioma in July 2020 and died from her disease in June 2021. 

Her lifetime evidence was that she had worked in the basement at the then polytechnic and the underside of the basement was sprayed with asbestos. Over time, the sprayed asbestos degraded and fibres detached themselves from the ceiling into the circulating air. Then, in January 1985, a ceiling collapsed on one of the upper floors of the polytechnic which led to the release of asbestos fibres. 

Subsequent testing identified the presence of measurable levels of asbestos fibres within 90 per cent of the building. Of course, the details of the significant presence of asbestos within the building was not notified to all employees, a factor which I consider to be significant in many such cases.

Continuing to make a difference through support groups

Women have continued to make a difference by way of support groups. HASAG Asbestos Disease Support was founded by two daughters who had lost their father to mesothelioma. Its team, which is predominantly female, continue to provide valuable support and advice to those who have been diagnosed with asbestos diseases.

As with Drs Newhouse and Thompson, women have continued to make significant contributions to the treatment of mesothelioma. Consultant medical oncologist and the head of the Lung Unit at the Royal Marsden, Professor Mary O’Brien, was recently awarded the British Thoracic Oncology Group (‘BTOG’) 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to the field.

At Irwin Mitchell, our London asbestos disease team is primarily made up of female lawyers (pictured), providing expert legal advice and support to those who are victims of the dust that was once known as the magic mineral.

We are passionate about the diversity of our group and celebrate this on International Women’s Day and how far we have come in changing perceptions of our profession and highlighting what we have contributed.

Joanne Jeffries, a partner in Irwin Mitchell’s Asbestos-Related Disease team says: “Though it is not widely recognised, women have played a huge part in knowledge, understanding and treatment of asbestos disease, particularly mesothelioma. On this International Women’s Day I am delighted to be a small part of that huge contribution to ensure justice for women."

Current data shows that 61 per cent of solicitors in the UK are female. This is a stark contrast to the figures 20-years-ago and contrasts even more starkly to the days where practising law was unavailable to women by virtue of their gender.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting people and their families diagnosed with mesothelioma and other diseases at our dedicated asbestos-related disease section.

“Though it is not widely recognised, women have played a huge part in knowledge, understanding and treatment of asbestos disease, particularly mesothelioma. On this International Women’s Day I am delighted to be a small part of that huge contribution to ensure justice for women."”