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Risk of Mesothelioma in Women May be Underestimated

risk of mesothelioma in womenAn international team of occupational health experts says science has done a “profound disservice” by underestimating the risk of mesothelioma in women. 

Scientists from Germany, Canada, Italy, and the US compiled the report for the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. 

They say the risk of mesothelioma in women has long been misunderstood. Asbestos is the main cause of mesothelioma in men. But the new report says studies often fail to link female mesothelioma cases to asbestos exposure. 

That omission made some believe that the risk of mesothelioma in women is different than it is in men. But the new report says that is not true. It urges scientists to be more thorough in their mesothelioma studies of women.

Asbestos and Mesothelioma

Asbestos is the main cause of mesothelioma. It is a fibrous mineral that resists heat and corrosion. This makes it handy for use in many industries. It took decades for scientists to realize how dangerous it was.

It is easy to see why pleural mesothelioma was first thought to be a man’s disease. Asbestos was mostly used in male-dominated industries like mining, shipbuilding, manufacturing, and construction. For a long time, most mesothelioma patients were men. Men were also the subjects of almost all mesothelioma studies.

The number of female mesothelioma cases was much lower. As a result, the risk of mesothelioma in women was not acknowledged until much later. Some women got sick after handling their spouses’ or fathers’ contaminated work clothes. Others got mesothelioma after living in a contaminated town. 

But in many cases, the origin of mesothelioma in women was never known. The new report suggests that researchers often did not try hard enough to find it.

“In our assessment of the science, the ‘low risk’ of mesothelioma in females is because of the nonsystematic recording of exposure histories among females,” writes lead author Xaver Baur of the European Society for Environmental and Occupational Medicine in Hamburg, Germany. 

Acknowledging the Risk of Mesothelioma in Women

The authors of the new report say many previous studies are flawed. They say too many of them list the cause of female mesothelioma as “idiopathic”. Idiopathic means that the origin of the disease is unknown. But in the case of mesothelioma, the cause is almost always asbestos.

The report says future researchers need to dig deeper. If they do, they will probably find that the risk of mesothelioma in women is close to that of men. They say taking better asbestos exposure histories for women patients is a matter of “social justice”

“The ongoing failure to recognize asbestos as the cause of a majority of cases of malignant mesothelioma in females does them, and their kin, a profound disservice,” they write. 

Understanding the Risk to Women

It may take more effort to pinpoint asbestos exposure in women who never worked in an asbestos industry. But the authors say it is usually there. 

Some form of asbestos is present in nearly every US school building built before the 1980s. This may account for the higher risk of mesothelioma in women teachers. 

Asbestos was also present in many personal care and household items made in the 1950s and 60s. These include everything from hairdryers to potholders to Christmas decor. In recent years, some women have gotten mesothelioma after using contaminated talcum powder. 

Women who think they may have been exposed to asbestos should know the early signs of mesothelioma. Coughing, chest pain, and shortness of breath have all been associated with asbestos cancer. 


Bauer, X, et al, “Malignant mesothelioma: Ongoing controversies about its etiology in females”, May 25, 2021, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Online ahead of print, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajim.23257

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