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Familial and Environmental Asbestos Exposure Raise Mesothelioma Risk in Women

environmental asbestos risk

Italian researchers say women who live around an asbestos plant or with one of its workers may be at special risk for mesothelioma from the combination of familial and environmental asbestos exposure. 

The research appears in a new issue of the Annals of Work Exposures and Health

Scientists have long known about the link between asbestos on worker’s clothes and mesothelioma among the women who wash those clothes. 

But the new report shows that some of these women face an even greater cumulative risk because of environmental asbestos exposure.

Bringing the Mesothelioma Risk Home

Traditionally, most jobs with the potential for asbestos exposure have been in male-dominated industries. These include industries like construction, shipbuilding, plumbing, electrical work, and asbestos mining or processing. As a result, most victims of malignant mesothelioma are men. 

When women are diagnosed with mesothelioma, it is often because they lived with a man who works in a high-risk field. When a woman embraces the worker or handles his contaminated clothing, she may inhale asbestos fibers. 

This is familial exposure, rather than environmental asbestos exposure. It is more common in women than in men. 

Environmental Asbestos Exposure Compounds the Risk

When a person lives near an asbestos mine or a plant that uses asbestos, they may encounter asbestos in the air or water. 

Studies show people who lived downwind of the now-closed asbestos mine in Libby, Montana, for instance, faced a much higher risk for mesothelioma.

The new Italian study evaluated mesothelioma risk in 15 women. The first group lived with a worker from shipyards where asbestos was used. The second group lived near an asbestos cement plant and had a family member who worked there. The third group lived near the same plant, but did not have an asbestos worker in the family.

The women with only familial exposure had as much asbestos in their bodies as people with moderate occupational exposure. But the women with both familial and environmental exposure had the highest asbestos burden.

“Our results also suggest that combined environmental and familial exposures may cause unexpectedly high cumulative fibre doses,” writes lead author Pietro Gino Barbieri.  

Malignant mesothelioma is an aggressive malignancy with no known cure. As many as 200,000 wives and children of asbestos workers will get sick from being exposed to asbestos at home. 


Barbieri, PG, “Lung Asbestos Fibre Burden and Pleural Mesothelioma in Women with Non-occupational Exposure”, February 17, 2020, Annals of Work Exposures and Health, 


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