Secondary asbestos exposure occurs when someone who did not directly handle asbestos is exposed through others. For instance, when a worker brings asbestos fibers home on their clothing, body, or gear, members of the household can then be exposed. Some people develop mesothelioma after secondary asbestos exposure.
What Is Secondary Asbestos Exposure?
Primary asbestos exposure occurs when someone encounters asbestos directly, usually on the job. For instance, an insulation installer might be exposed while ripping out older asbestos insulation from a home.
Secondary asbestos exposure is when someone brings asbestos fibers into the home or otherwise in contact with other people. The insulation worker, for example, could have fibers attached to their clothing, which then gets into the home and causes secondary exposure in his family.
Secondary exposure is also called secondhand asbestos exposure, indirect exposure, household or domestic exposure, or take-home asbestos exposure.
Exactly how someone might experience secondhand exposure to asbestos varies. These are some examples of possible routes of exposure:
Clothing and Laundry
Workers can easily carry asbestos fibers home on their clothing. The fibers are tiny and sharp, which allows them to stick to fabrics. The fibers can come loose in the home, contaminating the space.
Many women in the past, in particular, experienced exposure while washing their husbands’ contaminated work clothes.
Clothing has been a major source of secondary exposure, but any personal contact can also lead to exposure. A worker coming home with fibers on their clothing, body, and hair can transfer them to another person through hugs and other types of contact.
If someone with asbestos on them from work doesn’t change or shower immediately, they can transfer fibers to furniture. This can, in turn, expose others in the home coming into contact with couches, chairs, and other furniture.
The same is true of cars. A worker might change and shower immediately at home, but they can still transfer the fibers to the interior of a vehicle. Anyone else using the car can then be exposed.
Secondhand exposure doesn’t always occur at home. Workers who don’t handle asbestos but work in the same facility as it can also be exposed secondarily. For instance, an engineer in a factory might have inhaled asbestos fibers while workers manipulated asbestos and released dust into the air.
Does Secondhand Asbestos Exposure Cause Mesothelioma?
Yes, secondary exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma. However, secondhand exposure is not as big of an issue today as it was in the past for several reasons. Far fewer workplaces use asbestos.
In those that still contain asbestos, workers have a greater awareness of the risks. They are less likely now to carry fibers home. There are more stringent safety protocols, including changing clothing or showering before leaving the workplace.
Even with lower risks today, secondary exposure still occurs. And, because the latency period for mesothelioma is so long, some people exposed decades ago are getting sick now.
Research About Secondary Asbestos Exposure
Despite less use of asbestos, stricter regulations, and worker safety protocols, secondary asbestos exposure is still a problem. Here’s what the research says about it:
- An early reported case of domestic exposure occurred in the wife of a shipyard machinist. She developed pleural mesothelioma in the early 1980s. A case study described the burden of fibers in her lungs and concluded that secondary exposure levels can be just as high as those in industrial workers.
- A German study from the 1990s recorded six cases of people diagnosed with mesothelioma with no known asbestos exposure. They discovered that the five women were exposed while doing their husbands’ laundry. The sixth was the son of an asbestos worker.
- A more recent study from 2017 in Italy looked at 35 people with mesothelioma diagnoses and no history of occupational asbestos exposure. Most victims were wives of men who worked in shipyards. This study demonstrates that women are still at risk of mesothelioma from secondary exposure.
- The W.R. Grace vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, caused exposure in thousands of people. The vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos. A study of residents in the area found that people who lived in homes with W.R. Grace workers had an increased risk of developing pleural abnormalities.
- One of the largest studies of secondary asbestos exposure reviewed the existing research to investigate a bigger pool of affected individuals. The researchers found that the family members at the highest risk of asbestos illness were those of workers in the highest-risk industries: asbestos product manufacturing, insulation, shipyards, and asbestos mining. The riskiest route of exposure was through laundering contaminated clothing.
Who Is at Risk for Secondary Asbestos Exposure?
Those at most risk for secondhand asbestos exposure are women, followed by children. Men dominate the workforce in industries that used and still include asbestos, putting their families at the greatest risk.
Occupations with Asbestos
Several workplaces and occupations exposed workers to asbestos in the past, while some continue to put workers at risk today. Anyone who lives with these workers is at risk for secondary exposure.
Those that used asbestos in the past are still important today because mesothelioma has a long latency period. It can take decades for the consequences of exposure to manifest as symptoms and a diagnosis.
The most common occupations for past exposure include:
- Shipyard workers
- Navy service members on ships and in shipyards
- Veterans from all branches
- Construction workers
- Power plant workers
- Boiler workers
- Insulation workers
- Workers in manufacturing plants
Workers today who might still be exposed to asbestos include:
- Construction workers
- Workers in demolition or renovation
- Insulation workers
- Asbestos abatement workers
Women and Secondhand Asbestos
Women have some of the highest risks for secondary asbestos exposure and resulting illnesses. Women whose husbands worked in asbestos-related industries could have been exposed through the fibers they brought home.
Wives often did the laundry. Shaking out and washing work clothing put them at significant risk for exposure. Studies of mesothelioma in women have confirmed this risk. An early study from 1978 found that most women diagnosed with mesothelioma had husbands or fathers who worked in an industry with asbestos.
Children of parents or siblings who worked around asbestos are also at risk for secondary exposure. With a long latency period for mesothelioma, some children exposed develop the cancer in early adulthood.
Environmental vs. Secondary Asbestos Exposure
Many people with mesothelioma and no history of occupational asbestos exposure encountered the harmful fibers through secondary exposure. However, there are other sources of exposure that are different and also contribute to mesothelioma.
Environmental asbestos exposure includes contact with asbestos from natural deposits or nearby facilities that contain asbestos. For instance, someone who lived near an asbestos insulation plant likely experienced environmental exposure.
How to Protect Yourself From Secondary Asbestos Exposure
Understanding your risk factors is the first step to protecting against current exposure to asbestos. If you live with someone who works in an at-risk industry, talk to them about whether or not they encounter asbestos on the job.
If they do, make sure they understand and follow all safety procedures at work. This includes using protective clothing and respirators and changing clothing or even showering before leaving the job site.
How Much Asbestos Exposure Causes Mesothelioma?
There is no safe amount of asbestos exposure—however, the more frequent and prolonged the exposure, the greater the risk of mesothelioma. A woman who washed her husband’s asbestos-laden clothes for years has a greater risk than someone exposed once.
How Long Does it Take to Develop Mesothelioma After Exposure?
According to studies, mesothelioma’s latency period can range from 14 to 72 years, with an average of 49 years from exposure to onset.
Other Illnesses Caused by Secondary Asbestos Exposure
Secondhand asbestos can cause pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma. Pleural mesothelioma is the more common form of this cancer, affecting the lung tissue. Peritoneal mesothelioma is cancer of the abdominal lining.
Other illnesses secondary asbestos exposure can cause include:
- Asbestosis. This is a progressive scarring of the lungs and a type of interstitial lung disease.
- Lung cancer. Similar in symptoms to pleural mesothelioma, lung cancer is more common.
- Pleural plaques and thickening. Asbestos can cause areas of thickening in the pleural tissue, known as plaques. These do not always indicate someone will develop mesothelioma.
Can I Get Secondary Asbestos Exposure Compensation?
If you can trace your exposure to a family member’s workplace, you can seek compensation for your own asbestos illness. Victims of occupational and secondary exposure can file lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers. This can lead to a settlement or a trial and jury award.
Another option might be to file a claim with an asbestos trust fund. Companies that used or made asbestos and then went bankrupt due to lawsuits set up these trusts to compensate victims.
Even roommates and other non-family members may be eligible for compensation in some areas. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that family members could hold companies liable for secondary exposure in the home. The court extended that to non-family members in the home in 2016.
Examples of Secondary Asbestos Exposure Cases
Most lawsuits and claims over asbestos and mesothelioma are from veterans or workers in asbestos-related industries. Some states do not allow secondhand exposure cases, while others do. Some important lawsuits paved the way to allow more of these victims to be recognized and to get justice in court:
- In 2013, Phyllis Granville won a verdict of $1.1 million in a Washington court after developing mesothelioma. Her husband worked as a tile installer and was exposed to asbestos from multiple manufacturers. Granville did her husband’s laundry and experienced secondhand exposure.
- In another case of laundry exposure, Barbara Bobo died of mesothelioma in Alabama. Her husband worked on asbestos at a nuclear plant and brought asbestos home on his clothing. Bobo’s family won a $3.5 million award after her death.
- John Panza Jr. developed mesothelioma at a young age due to secondary exposure during childhood. Diagnosed in his 30s, Panza won a $27.5 million verdict in an Ohio court. Panza’s father worked at a brake company and was exposed to asbestos through brake pads.
- A case of secondary exposure in New Jersey went all the way to that state’s Supreme Court. Anthony Olivo worked as a welder and steamfitter from 1947 to 1984. He worked in ExxonMobil’s oil refinery and came into contact with asbestos materials. Both Olivo and his wife developed mesothelioma. ExxonMobil argued it was not liable for his wife’s exposure, but ultimately the court disagreed. The decision allowed other secondary exposure victims in New Jersey to hold companies liable for their asbestos illnesses.
Can Secondary Asbestos Exposure Harm Pets?
Pets in the home can also be affected by take-home asbestos. Because workplaces are safer today, exposure is much less common. Cats or dogs can be exposed through contact with workers and their clothing with asbestos fibers.
A study of pets as warning signs of environmental exposure confirmed that dogs can develop mesothelioma from asbestos exposure. Researchers confirmed 18 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in dogs by veterinarians at the University of Pennsylvania.
These cases of canine mesothelioma were associated with pet owners who were exposed to asbestos on the job. Some were connected with talc-based flea repellant. Talcum powder is now known to sometimes contain contaminating asbestos.
What to Do if You Were Exposed to Asbestos Indirectly
If you developed mesothelioma but never worked with asbestos, you could be a victim of secondary exposure in the home. Contact a mesothelioma or asbestos lawyer to find out more. They have resources available to investigate your exposure history and identify companies that might be liable.
Look for a lawyer or firm with experience handling asbestos and mesothelioma cases. They have the resources and knowledge to give you the best chance of getting much-needed compensation.
If you believe you may have been exposed to asbestos in the home, reach out to your doctor to learn more. Watch for the symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos illnesses and get screened as soon as possible.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Mary Ellen Ellis has been the head writer for Mesothelioma.net since 2016. With hundreds of mesothelioma and asbestos articles to her credit, she is one of the most experienced writers on these topics. Her degrees and background in science and education help her explain complicated medical topics for a wider audience. Mary Ellen takes pride in providing her readers with the critical information they need following a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.