A rising number of women are diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer each year.
Researchers in Italy are the latest to study this growing trend and show that asbestos exposure — the main cause of mesothelioma — doesn’t only affect men working certain blue-collar jobs.
The report, published in the Italian medical journal La Medicina del Lavoro in April, analyzes possible asbestos exposure in a cloth doll factory.
Using data from the Province of Brescia Mesothelioma Registry, researchers found three cases of pleural mesothelioma cancer diagnosed in young women who had worked for two doll manufacturing companies.
A judicial autopsy performed on one of the women revealed a high concentration of asbestos fibers in the lung tissue. The asbestos exposure for all three women was originally reported as “unknown.”
“The three cases of mesothelioma in doll production workers suggest that also in this restricted manufacturing sector had occurred an occupational asbestos exposure, which is up to now unknown and isn’t due only to the use of sewing or ironing machines,” lead author Pietrogino Barbieri wrote.
Asbestos Exposure in Doll Manufacturing
Mesothelioma cases are predominantly a result of occupational asbestos exposure. The rare cancer carries a long latency period, meaning it can take years — typically decades — after exposure before symptoms become noticeable.
These two factors explain why the vast majority of mesothelioma patients are men diagnosed between ages 75 and 84. Many are retired construction workers, machinery operators, power plant workers or military veterans.
Although manufacturing is considered a high-risk industry for asbestos exposure, doll manufacturing is an uncommon and poorly investigated productive sector, Barbieri noted in the study.
Only one previous study reported cases of mesothelioma in women who worked in cloth doll factories. Barbieri’s team sought to re-evaluate this study and assess the risk of asbestos exposure for these workers.
The team reviewed 757 total cases of malignant mesothelioma cancer in the Brescia registry, which includes population-based data from 1993 to 2016.
Of the three cases with links to doll manufacturing, two worked in the same factory. One of the women — diagnosed in 1999 at age 51 — pressed buttons on doll clothes in the warding department and later sewed the clothes with an industrial sewing machine.
Another woman worked in the same factory from 1963 to 1965 and used sandblasting equipment on various doll segments. Practices such at these can release toxic asbestos fibers into the air, putting workers at high risk for exposure.
“The occurrence of two mesothelioma cases in the same company out of the three here presented was suggesting an occupational exposure,” Barbieri wrote. “The finding of a high amphibole fibers lung concentration confirmed the previous hypothesis, despite the impossibility to determine the circumstances with good evidence.”
History of Asbestos Textile Products
In its raw form, asbestos fibers can be spun into textile cloths and garments.
Until the 1980s, many U.S. and international industries used these textiles for their resistance to heat and corrosive elements. Asbestos was added to firefighter suits and aprons of foundry workers.
Asbestos clothing is no longer manufactured or used in the U.S. or other industrialized countries, but many developing nations that are still reliant on asbestos as a resource continue to manufacture textile products with the fibrous mineral.
Since 2005, Italy and other nations of the European Union ban the import, export and use of asbestos.
The three women diagnosed with mesothelioma in the Italian study were exposed to asbestos long before this ban, when asbestos use was still prevalent in Italian manufacturing.
Barbieri noted that factory workers who cut, sewed and sandblasted the dolls were subjected to an occupational hazard for the development of mesothelioma.
As the study points out, many of these workers are women.
Mesothelioma Cases Among Women Are Hard to Pinpoint
Although mesothelioma is still considered a male-dominated disease, the amount of women diagnosed with the cancer is growing.
Women now make up roughly one-fourth of all mesothelioma cases in the U.S.
However, as Barbieri addresses, pinpointing asbestos exposure in women is often more difficult compared to men. This is particularly the case in women exposed outside of the jobsite.
“Mesotheliomas in women with no apparent occupational asbestos exposure are normally referred to life or family environmental exposure,” Barbieri wrote in the study. “Moreover, it is known that occupational asbestos exposure in women is difficult to recognize.”
By examining lung tissue samples, Barbieri’s team was able to reclassify the three women doll factory workers’ asbestos exposure from “unknown” to “occupational certified.”
“The lung asbestos fibers burden analysis is confirmed to be a decisive factor in the assessment of mesothelioma cases with ‘unknown’ exposure,” Barbieri wrote.