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Overalls exposure: A small part of a wider investigation into women’s exposure to asbestos

On 31 October, 1965, the front page of the Sunday Times expressed the dangers of asbestos to “not only the exposed workman but also perhaps his womenfolk.” 

This article shed light upon the grave harm which could be caused to women who washed their husband’s dusty overalls after his return from working with asbestos materials.

Fifty seven years have passed since the publication of this article but unfortunately, the male centric lens on women’s exposure to asbestos often remains present to this day.

How does asbestos affect women?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibre which was widely used in the construction, manufacturing and shipbuilding industries from the 1950s onwards. Therefore, asbestos-related diseases are generally associated with men, as the people who typically dominated such industries during in this period.

Given the lengthy latency period of asbestos-related diseases, it’s often not until some 20-50 years after a person was exposed to asbestos that their symptoms become apparent. For this reason, there continues to be thousands of male deaths from asbestos related diseases per year.

However, asbestos related diseases aren’t unique to men. In 2020, 459 women in the UK died from mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer which has a strong association with exposure to asbestos. Tragically, it’s anticipated that there will continue to be between 400-500 female deaths resulting from mesothelioma each year until 2030.

More than 60% of women don't know where exposure occurred

Sixty two per cent of women diagnosed with mesothelioma don’t know where their exposure occurred. Therefore, clients are often shocked to learn that their illness is asbestos related, particularly when they haven’t worked in industries which are typically associated with asbestos. It’s often only through specialist guidance and thorough investigations that clients are able to identify the cause of their illness.

Historically, investigations into women’s exposure to asbestos were centralised around the male figures in their lives. When attempting to identify the source of the sufferer’s exposure to asbestos, often the immediate focus was establishing exposure through their husbands’, fathers’ and brothers’ occupational histories. This is often referred to as secondary exposure, or overalls exposure.

However, by primarily assessing secondary exposure, the sufferer’s own narrative was deemed somewhat secondary, and investigations into potential sources of primary exposure were often neglected.

Which sources of exposure should be considered?

Irwin Mitchell has more than 30 years’ experience in supporting people with asbestos-related diseases and has assisted clients in obtaining compensation in even the most complex cases, including in the Supreme Court.

After receiving a diagnosis, clients, and their families, have many questions about where they were exposed to asbestos, and how this was wasn’t prevented. Not only do they need answers for their own peace of mind, but those living with an asbestos-related disease need the financial security of knowing their future needs will be taken care of.

Therefore, it’s vital that all potential avenues are explored. Here are just a few areas of investigation:

School history and childhood

It has been previously reported that more than 75% schools contain asbestos. Although this is not dangerous when undisturbed, if the asbestos material becomes broken or damaged, it can release harmful asbestos fibres which can sadly prove fatal.

Teachers or former students may have been exposed to asbestos at school through sources such as:

  • Damaged asbestos materials in the fabric of the school building including the halls, corridors, structural beams and columns
  • Damaged asbestos insulation board used in display and notice boards, walls, window surrounds and ceiling tiles
  • Damaged asbestos wool found in materials used by students such as Bunsen burner mats

Employment and occupational history

It’s important to examine whether someone has been exposed to asbestos at work, even if they didn’t work with asbestos directly. For example, a sufferer may have been working in the vicinity of refurbishments without proper precautions having been taken to protect them.

Environmental surroundings throughout life

Sufferers of an asbestos-related disease may also have been exposed to asbestos through their environmental surroundings. Irwin Mitchell client June Hancock was exposed to asbestos as a child having grown up near an asbestos factory in Leeds. Sadly both June and her mother were subsequently diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Adrian Budgen, a partner in the Asbestos-Related Disease Team at Irwin Mitchell, secured £4.37 million in compensation for June in the first case of its kind. This has paved the way for other sufferers of environmental exposure to seek the financial compensation that they deserve.

Cosmetic Products

Another lesser known source of exposure can be the use of cosmetic products containing asbestos contaminated talc, including certain eyeshadows and face powders.

The occupational history of others

It’s vital to explore the occupational histories of those close to the sufferer. However, when doing so, it’s important to recognise that ‘overalls exposure’ must be treated as a small part of an overall investigation.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people and families affected by exposure to asbestos at our dedicated asbestos-related disease section