Secondary Exposure in Children of Asbestos Workers, Pt. 2

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In Part 1 of this post, we explained how asbestos workers can inadvertently bring toxic fibers home with them and the effects this can have on their children and loved ones. Although a number of conditions can be caused by secondary asbestos exposure, the most studied is mesothelioma.

Almost always associated with asbestos exposure, mesothelioma is a rare cancer that affects the protective linings of the lungs, heart or abdomen. Many factors determine whether childhood exposures will lead to the cancer, including the extent and duration of exposure and the type of asbestos. In addition, researchers believe a person’s age, sex, genetics, overall health and smoking history to be significant variables as well.

Mesothelioma in Children and Young Adults

Asbestos cancer in children and young adults is especially rare, with diagnoses in the first two decades of life making up about 2 to 5 percent of all cases. Between 1999 and 2002, only nine cases of pediatric mesothelioma were reported by the United States Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) database. Some studies suggest male children of asbestos workers are at higher risk than female children.

Researchers claim that childhood exposure to asbestos may increase the risk for mesothelioma, but the time between initial asbestos exposure and a diagnosis, known as the latency period, is often lengthy. In one study describing five patients indirectly exposed to asbestos during childhood, the average latency period was 25.2 years, and the average age at diagnosis was 32 years old. The majority of patients are older than 40 years old when diagnosed. The prognosis for children is just as poor as it is for adults, with the exception of certain subtypes of the disease.

Researchers believe children exposed at an early age may be more likely to develop the disease than people first exposed later in life. This theory is supported by the findings of a 2011 French study on mesothelioma risk. In the few studies that specifically discuss childhood asbestos exposure, there is no indication that children develop the cancer more rapidly than adults.

Numerous other studies offer insight on childhood cancer trends, but many claims are offered without a definitive explanation.

One Australian study showed a reduced risk of mesothelioma in asbestos-exposed children, which the researchers believe may be explained by their having a more effective defense mechanism than adults. There was also some evidence that children younger than 15 years of age when first exposed experienced lower rates of mesothelioma mortality.

Preventing Household Asbestos Exposure

There are a number of ways to avoid exposure to asbestos, and it is equally important for asbestos workers to prevent secondary exposure among their children and loved ones. While federal regulations limit the chances of this happening today, take-home asbestos exposure remains a dangerous possibility.

Occupational health and safety officers are required to disclose all the dangerous substances workers might contact while on the job. OSHA or OSHA-approved state occupational safety and health programs may suggest one or more of the following steps workers should take to prevent household asbestos exposure:

  • Thoroughly wash or shower before leaving work
  • Change clothes before leaving work
  • Store street clothes separate from work areas
  • Avoid washing work and street clothes together
  • Wash clothes at work if possible

Workers can take steps to prevent exposure within the home as well. Using doormats and removing shoes before entering can help limit the amount of asbestos dust brought into the home. Regularly cleaning the house of tracked in dust or soil is also recommended.

Tools used at asbestos jobsites should either be left at work or stored in an area where children and loved ones can’t come in contact with them. Because swallowing asbestos is just as harmful as inhaling it, encouraging family members to thoroughly wash their hands and faces before meals can help lower the chances of exposure.


Joey Rosenberg is a researcher and content writer for The Mesothelioma Center. He is an alumnus of the University of Central Florida with a background in technical writing. Joey joined The Mesothelioma Center in 2011 to raise awareness and understanding of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. If you have a story idea for Joey, please email him at jrosenberg@asbestos.com.

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