The law firm that won Australia’s first asbestos claims for Wittenoom miners says the rising asbestos toll for women is alarming.
Asbestos-related disease has traditionally been regarded as a male concern– first the miners at Wittenoom, then the dock workers who handled the deadly fibre, and then tradies such as builders, electricians and plumbers. But the trend has shifted in recent years.
Slater and Gordon asbestos lawyer Suzanne Sandford deals with urgent cases of mesothelioma, the terminal cancer caused only by asbestos exposure. She says one third of her clients now are women.
“Increasingly, all over Australia, we’re seeing more women with legal claims for asbestos disease than ever before,” she says.
“Their asbestos exposure includes cases where women washed their husbands’ dusty clothes, or worked in offices and department stores where asbestos was used for insulation or acoustic dampening, or in the home, often as young children, when their parents did renovations.
“Sometimes it was the children’s job to sweep up the dusty rubble after mum and dad ripped out the kitchen or bathroom – their legacy is a deadly cancer 20 to 40 years later.”
The observations of the asbestos lawyers at Slater and Gordon – a predominantly female team – are borne out by statistics from Cancer Institute NSW’s report “Mesothelioma in NSW” (September 2010).
The report found that while the rate of mesothelioma in men has stabilised since the early 1990s, for women it has continued to increase at a rate of 4.9 per cent per year.
For example, the current rate of diagnosis for women in their 80s is 7.5 times what it was in the early 1970s.
Since 1980, 33,000 Australians have died from asbestos-related disease. Diagnosis can be 20-30 years after the victim breathed in the mineral fibres. The rate at which Australians are diagnosed with asbestos-related disease is not expected to peak until 2020.