Increasing Numbers of Women Dying from Malignant Mesothelioma

Asbestos Exposure & Bans

The number of women dying annually from malignant mesothelioma climbed by 25% over the past two decades, despite a nationwide drop in the use of asbestos, the primary cause of the cancer.

The rise in deaths among women contrasts with the numbers among men, which have fallen slightly in recent years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The statistics were part of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published on May 13. The report analyzed the annual mesothelioma death rate for women from 1999 to 2020.

“The increasing number of malignant mesothelioma deaths among women most likely represent exposure (to asbestos) many years ago,” lead author Dr. Jacek Mazurek, CDC Respiratory Health Division, told The Mesothelioma Center at “These results underscore the importance of controlling exposure today.”

Homemakers Lead the Rise

During that 22-year span, 12,227 women died from mesothelioma, compared to 46,443 men. According to data obtained by the CDC, 489 women died in 1999 and 614 died in 2020. The most died in 2017 (672) and 2019 (641).

The drop in deaths among men went from 1,990 in 1999 to 1,981 in 2020. The high was 2,286 deaths in 2011.

The report also estimated a median interval of 32 years between initial occupational exposure to asbestos and death from mesothelioma cancer.

Occupational exposure to asbestos, particularly in construction, manufacturing and shipyards, is typically the most recognized cause of mesothelioma for men, but the report provided a stark contrast in causes for women.

In 2020, the last year of the report, 22.8% of the deaths were homemakers, the largest percentage of occupations listed on death certificates examined by the CDC.

Health care and social assistance was cited as the leading industry group with 15.7% of the deaths. Among specific jobs, registered nurses and school teachers attributed for 4.9% and 5.6%, respectively.

“A large proportion was reported among women whose occupations were not historically and traditionally associated with asbestos exposure,” Mazurek said. “These results underscore the importance of controlling exposure in work settings traditionally associated with exposure, as well as other settings such as older buildings, where exposure can occur as a consequence of disturbance during maintenance or renovation, or the resuspension of settled asbestos fibers in the air caused by dusting, sweeping or cleaning.”

Legacy Asbestos Contributes to Exposure

Only women 25 years or older were included in the report. More than 90% of the deaths involved women 55 or older.

The authors estimated that 85% of male deaths were attributed to work-related exposure but only 23% of women. They believe the majority of the exposure to women came from potential environmental exposure, legacy asbestos that remains in older structures, or indirect contact from family members inadvertently bringing home the asbestos fibers from a workplace.

“Before I was diagnosed with mesothelioma, I didn’t even know what asbestos was, let alone how I could’ve been exposed to it at such a young age,” said mesothelioma survivor Tamron Little, a contributing writer for The Mesothelioma Center at “I was ultimately able to figure out that I was exposed in two different ways: Secondhand asbestos exposure and legacy asbestos in my family’s old apartments.”

“These hidden risk factors have impacted my life greatly. I am very careful with the products we use as a family as well as the places we frequent,” she added. “It’s vital for all of us to be aware of any unknown risks we may be taking daily.”

Earlier this month, Little participated in the Cancer Moonshot Goals Forum in Washington, D.C., where she spoke with White House officials and members of newly-formed Cancer Cabinet.

States with the highest death rates for women with mesothelioma were Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, all involved in the shipyard industry.

Based on the long latency period between first exposure and diagnosis of mesothelioma, the recent rise in deaths is not totally surprising.

The annual use of asbestos in the U.S. peaked at 803,000 metric tons in 1973 and gradually has been reduced to a low of 320 tons in 2021. Much of the asbestos remains throughout older structures.

“Ensuring future decreases in mortality because of mesothelioma will require meticulous control of exposure activities such as ship and building renovation and demolition, and in asbestos remediation and disposal,” the report concludes. “The continuing risk for potential exposure underscores the need for ongoing surveillance.”

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