Asbestos is a well-known cancer-causing substance. Decades of scientific study has established a link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, a rare and incurable cancer found in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. But in recent years, another cancer site has become a concern: the ovaries.
Studies have now linked ovarian cancer to asbestos exposure from contaminated talcum powder products, and suggest women who have been exposed to asbestos are nearly two times more likely to develop the disease than those not exposed to asbestos.
Until late 2011, the link between asbestos exposure and ovarian cancer risk was unclear. Not only was it hard to make a distinction pathologically between peritoneal mesothelioma and ovarian cancer, but it was assumed that women were at a lower risk for asbestos-related diseases because the main source of asbestos exposure – industrial jobs – were usually performed by men.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer arm of the World Health Organization, investigated common limitations in studies of asbestos-related diseases. The IARC found excessive ovarian cancer deaths among female factory workers through the 20th century, confirming asbestos as the cause. This prompted the University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) School of Public Health to take a closer look.
Through in-depth analysis, UIC researchers found that asbestos fibers can accumulate in the ovaries from exposure both at home and at work. Some women were even exposed second-hand – coming into contact with men who worked with asbestos-containing materials or in asbestos-related industries. But not all women with ovarian cancer were exposed in these ways. What was the cause of their cancer?