When my sister attended elementary school, her teacher asked one day what her father did for a living.
It was sharing time in her class, and students publicly told fellow classmates and their teachers about their parent’s jobs.
My sister stood at the front of her class and boldly replied, “My daddy works, and he never takes a bath.” When she told my parents what happened in school, they found her response comically humiliating.
You see, my father, Richard Lloyd Barker, worked at a paper mill, and he used the mill’s showers so he wouldn’t bring home his dirty clothes. But his dirty clothes, which likely contained some amount of asbestos, may have hurt us as they hurt him.
My dad died of mesothelioma.
Dangerously Dirty Clothes
My father would always carry a shopping bag of clean clothes to work on the first day of work, and he would bring it home full of dirty clothes at the end of the week.
Because he would get so dirty on the job, he would shower at work to avoid dragging the dirt into his vehicle. He did this for the length of his career.
When he brought his clothes home, they were covered in white and gray sludge. He always dropped the bag of dirty clothes by the basement door, and my sister, mother and I would take it downstairs to the laundry room.
We would separate the laundry and begin washing it so Dad’s clothes would be ready for work the next day. My sister and I thought nothing of doing cannonballs into the piles of laundry. It was fun, and we had a good time doing it.
But we didn’t know about the possible danger we were getting ourselves into.
Hidden Dangers of Secondhand Exposure
My heart sank when I read studies about families exposed to asbestos through contact with a family member who was exposed to asbestos at work.
I was fully aware that my father contracted mesothelioma through his exposure at work. The studies I read validated any fears, and I suppose many others experience these same kinds of fears, too.
It is scary to watch mesothelioma grip your family, pull them through the trenches and leave it in shambles. It is a heartbreaking experience I wish for no one. Perhaps, there are others out there who have the same fears I hide in the depths of my heart.
Should Family Members Be Scared?
Yes and no.
Mesothelioma and pulmonology expert, Dr. Albert Miller, published a study in 2005 about familial mesothelioma cases.
He evaluated 32 mesothelioma cases involving related household members for 15 years, and his studies reveal some alarming information for people who were exposed to asbestos through their loved ones.
Miller asserts ‘asbestos is brought home to family members on the hair, clothing and personal effects of asbestos workers.’
Asbestos workers in his study included:
- 13 shipyard workers
- 7 insulators
- 2 railroad workers
- 2 manufacturers of asbestos products
- 2 steel mill workers
- 2 refinery workers
- 1 pipe fitter
- 1 bricklayer
- 1 construction worker
However, this list doesn’t exhaust the occupations with potential asbestos exposure, but it does include many different types of skilled workers.
Miller said the subjects in his study had no other asbestos exposure, other than being in the same house as someone who worked in asbestos. In fact, 13 of the 32 patients were less than 10 years old when they were exposed to asbestos.
The average latency period was 38 to 59 years after exposure, Miller said.
Miller’s predecessor, Dr. Muriel Newhouse, had first discovered a link between asbestos workers’ homes and familial mesothelioma in 1965. Dr. Newhouse taught about occupational diseases at The London School of Hygiene. Her work solidified her career as a world leader in asbestos research.
Their studies involved 83 mesothelioma patients. Results showed more than half of those patients had occupational exposure to asbestos or lived with asbestos workers.
What Does This Mean for Families?
They asserted that people who live in the same home as an asbestos worker are 10 times more likely to develop mesothelioma than those who do not live in the same home with an asbestos worker.
The only job my father ever worked during my lifetime was at a paper mill. He worked there for over two decades. I may have been exposed to asbestos on a regular basis.
When my father died from mesothelioma in 1993, I didn’t comprehend the implications his disease might have for me.
Although I don’t live in fear, I do let my doctors know about my father’s battle with the disease.
Mesothelioma is considered a rare form of cancer and is often misdiagnosed. Knowing I have experienced childhood exposure, I think my doctors would be vigilant enough to recognize the possibility if I ever developed symptoms.
Statistically speaking, the chances of developing mesothelioma are pretty slim. But factoring in the tenfold increase through familial exposure, those statistics become a bit more significant and worrisome.
A family’s battle with mesothelioma requires them to find strength and courage they never knew they had.
My father’s courage illustrates exactly what we Barkers are made of. If any other family members develop the disease, we have the experience and strength of my father in our arsenal, and we won’t play nice.