- By Treven Pyles
Although the employment of asbestos for commercial and industrial purposes has declined substantially since 1973, when a record amount of 804,000 metric tons was consumed in the United States, mesothelioma remains a present-day disease. The only known cause of this aggressive form of cancer, which over 31,000 Americans fell victim to between 1999 and 2010, is asbestos exposure. While exposure can happen in multiple settings, people who were in direct contact with asbestos in the workplace over a duration of several years are at highest risk of developing mesothelioma - up to 10% of them will be affected by it. In fact, the vast majority of mesothelioma patients have a history of occupational asbestos exposure.
In addition to workplace asbestos exposure as the primary cause, another important mesothelioma trend refers to gender. Since the heyday of asbestos use took place between the 1930s and the 1970s, both in the U.S. and throughout Europe, the better part of the jobs which involved asbestos exposure were held down by men. As a consequence, men are 4.6 times more likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma than women, who account for only 8% of all cases. Nonetheless, the percentage of women who develop mesothelioma as a result of occupational asbestos exposure is actually much smaller, as it is secondary asbestos exposure which usually causes this form of cancer in the female population. Due to such a low prevalence, mesothelioma in women is insufficiently studied, even less when it comes to female patients whose disease stems from workplace asbestos exposure.
However, a recent study published in the Italian medical journal La Medicina del Lavoro reveals a series of novel aspects concerning pleural mesothelioma in doll factory workers, who had mainly been women throughout history. After analyzing the cases of three female workers who died of mesothelioma, researchers found the doll manufacturing companies they had been employed at to be the source of asbestos exposure.
During the study, the team of researchers reviewed 757 cases of mesothelioma which occurred between 1993 and 2016 using data from the Province of Brescia Mesothelioma Registry. They discovered 3 mesothelioma deaths which occurred in cloth doll factory female workers, occupational group which had been linked to this disease only by one study before. Pietrogino Barbieri, the leading researcher, decided to also reevaluate the findings of the previous study so as to assess the risk of mesothelioma in cloth doll factory workers with more accuracy.
Interestingly enough, two of the women who lost their lives to mesothelioma had worked in the same doll manufacturing facility. One of them - who was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 1999, at the age of 51 - would press buttons on doll clothes in the warding department, whereas the other would sew clothes with industrial sewing machines. The third woman was the employee of another cloth doll factory between 1963 and 1965. She would use sandblasting devices on various doll segments, which was bound to make any asbestos fibers lingering on them airborne. "The occurrence of two mesothelioma cases in the same company out of the three here presented was suggesting an occupational exposure", wrote Barbieri.
A large amount of amphibole asbestos fibers was found in the lung tissue of one of the doll factory workers following a judicial autopsy. Since a connection between asbestos exposure and cloth doll manufacturing had not been suspected prior to this study, the source of asbestos was classified as "unknown". Nevertheless, in the light of these recent findings, the origin of the woman's asbestos exposure was changed to "occupational certified". According to Barbieri, listing the source of asbestos exposure as "unknown" for female mesothelioma victims is a very common practice, as the disease affects preponderantly men. Moreover, occupational exposure is often challenging to prove in the case of women who develop mesothelioma due to the difficulty of pinpointing the source of asbestos in their former workplaces, which were significantly different than men's.
At the moment, there are over 3,000 confirmed sources of asbestos exposure, a large portion of which refer to occupational settings such as:
During the last century, people who had a job in one of these work sectors would breathe in incredible quantities of asbestos fibers on a regular basis, usually for multiple years in a row. As a result, they are now at high risk for mesothelioma, as well as for other serious diseases related to asbestos exposure. Because mesothelioma has a long latency period, ensuing in two to five decades from the first exposure to asbestos, the number of new cases is expected to increase through 2025.
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