Why the Gender Gap on Asbestos Exposure is Getting Smaller

Chemical Entanglements is an ongoing research project about gender and exposure. Learn more here. 

By Emily Walsh

Many people have heard of asbestos, but they may not be aren’t fully aware its impact on our health. In the mid 20th century, the mineral was widely used by the construction industry, both in the United States and around the world. Heat and fire-resistant properties made asbestos a favored material for manufacturing everything from cement pipes to hairdryers. However, it quickly became apparent that this naturally occurring mineral was actually a carcinogen.

Exposure to asbestos has historically been tied to labor intensive, male-dominated occupations. The material was most commonly produced by mining and utilized across construction and shipbuilding industries. However, the effects of exposure were made apparent after years of breaking down and disturbing asbestos day after day. This caused microscopic asbestos fibers to enter the air, sticking to skin and clothes and posing inhalation risks to anyone working in the area. Decades later, irritation caused by the inhaled fibers would lead to serious health conditions like asbestosis, lung cancer, and all forms of mesothelioma.

In contrast, asbestos exposure had a very different impact on women during this time. When usage was at its peak, fibers from construction sites or mines entered the air and spread throughout the environment. Although most women did not directly come into contact with asbestos occupationally, they may have been experiencing secondhand exposure due to proximity within their community. Women also reported encountering asbestos from washing and handling their loved one’s work clothes, sending the fibers airborne once again and spreading them throughout the home. This resulted in similarly severe diseases, although studies have shown latency periods have typically been longer in female patients. Whether this is due to gender or to the form of exposure isn’t fully clear.

Asbestos Exposure Today

Regulations meant to rein in asbestos use and limit exposure have been in place for several decades. The Environmental Protection Agency took steps to restrict asbestos use through legislation like the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Toxic Substances Control Acts of 1976. Despite this, the United States has not fully banned the toxin, allowing up to one percent to be added to any number of manufactured materials.

Cases of asbestos-related diseases have remained steady even after regulation, with mesothelioma diagnoses among women on the rise. One study from Turkey suggested women had a higher likelihood of developing mesothelioma from environmental exposure as compared to men. This disease is a particularly severe form of cancer that manifests in the mesothelium of the lungs, heart, and abdomen, developing over the course of 20-50 years. Today, women make up a quarter of mesothelioma cases, with higher percentages of women being diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma as compared to men.

The global response toward asbestos mining and consumption has slowly grown over the course of several decades, but still has a lot of ground to cover. About 60 countries have fully banned the mineral and are taking steps to responsibly handle and phase out its use in products. However, this doesn’t fully address asbestos included in older materials and infrastructure that were produced before regulation. With renovation projects to maintain older structures and improper disposal running rampant, previously-confined asbestos is spreading fibers into communities and the environment. This has lead to a rise in environmental exposure, while occupational exposure has been declining.

Despite this, occupational exposure is still a prominent avenue for coming into contact with asbestos. As of 2016, women make up 9.1 percent of the construction workforce, potentially playing a role in their rise in asbestos-related disease cases.This, along with the growing incidence of environmental exposure, contributes to the shrinking gender gap surrounding conditions caused by asbestos.

The tie between construction work and asbestos has only strengthened over the years, and has been a primary focus when researching its impact on health. In contrast, fewer studies have discussed the effect of asbestos in our environment and how it may impact varying demographics and genders differently. More data is needed to fully address the issue of rising environmental exposure, but it does bring to light the historical significance of women being exposed to asbestos and the information their experiences could provide.

Emily Walsh works as a Community Outreach Director at the Mesolithioma Cancer Alliance, where she draws attention to the dangers of asbestos exposure and its impact throughout the world. Emily dedicates much of her time building mesothelioma cancer awareness through social media and blogging, partnering with likeminded organizations to spread the word. 

CSW was pleased to partner with the Mesolithioma Cancer Alliance for this blog post! Learn more about CSW’s Chemical Entanglements project here.