What Is Secondary Asbestos Exposure?

Secondary exposure occurs when people come into contact with asbestos fibers carried on someone else’s clothing, skin or hair. Most primary exposure happens on the job and secondhand exposure then happens when workers inadvertently bring home asbestos fibers to their family or expose co-workers in shared offices or common spaces.

Handling contaminated clothing or even sharing a hug with a loved one with asbestos fibers on them could put people at risk of asbestos exposure. Secondary exposure is just as dangerous as primary exposure and can result in diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

Sometimes patients weren’t directly exposed to asbestos. A family member who was exposed brought asbestos into the household.
Dr. Marcelo DaSilva
chief of thoracic surgery and medical director at AdventHealth Cancer Institute

Secondary asbestos exposure is less common today because asbestos use has been phased out of many industries and asbestos regulations have tightened in the workplace. However, legacy exposure continues to pose a threat. Workers should change out of asbestos-contaminated clothing at work and use provided shower facilities to wash asbestos fibers from their skin and hair before they go home. 

Workers with primary exposure to asbestos shouldn’t wash asbestos-contaminated laundry. Regular washing machines can spread asbestos fibers to other clothing. Employers must provide specialized laundering services to clean all employees’ asbestos-contaminated work clothes for reuse. 

Key Facts About Secondary Asbestos Exposure
  • Secondary asbestos exposure occurs when a family member or co-worker gets microscopic asbestos fibers on their person, clothes or gear and brings it home or into shared spaces.
  • Cancers and other diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural plaques, are a result of secondary exposure to asbestos.
  • Washing asbestos-contaminated clothing in a regular washing machine is ineffective, contaminates other clothes and causes the fibers to become airborne.

What Are the Risks of Secondary Asbestos Exposure?

Secondary asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. The risks of secondary exposure are the same risks associated with primary exposure, including pleural plaques and pleural effusions.

In some circumstances, secondary exposures have approached occupational levels. This is more likely to happen when a worker is employed in a high-exposure industry. Examples include asbestos miners, insulators, shipyard workers and construction workers.

Secondary exposure to asbestos, or cross-contamination of asbestos, can lead to mesothelioma.
Dr. Marcelo DaSilva
chief of thoracic surgery and medical director at AdventHealth Cancer Institute

Extensive research has proven that secondary asbestos exposure causes serious health effects. About 90% of all cases of malignant mesothelioma stem from asbestos exposure. 

The number of yearly deaths from malignant mesothelioma in women saw a 25% increase from 1999 to 2020. Some experts suggest this may result from an increase in secondhand exposures, though women have also entered more fields that could lead to primary exposures.

Who Is at Risk for Secondary Asbestos Exposure?

Family members of asbestos workers have the highest risk for secondary exposure. However, anyone who comes into frequent contact with an asbestos worker is at risk.

Despite reductions in asbestos use, new cases of asbestos-related diseases from secondary exposure continue to be diagnosed. Legacy asbestos that remains in older machines and buildings, as well as the disease’s extended latency period contribute to this. The 20 to 60 years between exposure and development of mesothelioma is the reason the disease is uncommon in children.

People at Risk of Secondary Asbestos Exposure
  • Children
  • Co-workers
  • Friends
  • Passengers in commuter vehicles
  • Roommates
  • Spouses and significant others

Because symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases don’t appear until decades after exposure, it can be challenging sometimes to pinpoint the form of exposure in some cases. The dangers of asbestos have led more than 55 countries to ban the material. 

The Biden-Harris administration in 2024 finalized a chrysotile ban in the U.S. However, the measure allows for a 12-year phase out period and doesn’t ban all types of asbestos.

How Does Secondary Asbestos Exposure Happen?

Secondary asbestos exposure happens when asbestos fibers on clothing, furniture or a person’s body transfer to other people. Asbestos fibers have a rough texture ideal for sticking to clothing, hair and skin. 

Close physical contact, such as hugs or a child sitting in their father’s lap, can expose loved ones to toxic fibers on a worker’s clothing, skin or hair. Handling or washing contaminated clothing at home is also a secondary asbestos exposure risk.

How secondary asbestos exposure happens
How secondary asbestos exposure happens

Another common way home exposure occurs is through furniture and fabrics like carpeting, upholstered headboards, couch fabrics and curtains. Fibers transported into the home easily become embedded in these materials and can then transfer to others in the home or become airborne and then inhaled.

People who don’t work directly with asbestos-containing products but share workspaces with those who do also have a higher risk of secondary asbestos exposure. This includes sharing an office, a work vehicle or desk chairs, particularly if they’re upholstered.

Survivor Story
Survivor Story
Jayda K. Peritoneal Mesothelioma

Survivor’s Mesothelioma Most Likely the Result of Secondary Exposure

Jayda was most likely exposed as a child through her father, who worked with asbestos products. This kind of asbestos exposure, when an asbestos worker unknowingly brings asbestos home on their clothing and work gear, is called secondary exposure. Jayda has four siblings, and she’s concerned about their potential prior exposure and what the future may hold.

Read Jayda’s Story

Secondary Asbestos Exposure Lawsuits

Juries in several states, including California and Washington, have a history of awarding compensation to people who filed secondary asbestos exposure lawsuits. New Jersey and North Dakota recently rejected secondary exposure claims altogether. An experienced asbestos lawyer can help you determine if you’re eligible for compensation, where to file and how to document your exposure. 

Determining liability in secondhand exposure can be more complicated than primary exposure cases. Some cases are difficult exposure. Research into your family’s asbestos history can help identify the source. A wife may have been exposed when doing laundry. A child may have been exposed to asbestos fibers on a parent or grandparent’s work clothes or boots.

People who develop symptoms of mesothelioma, especially those with difficult exposure cases, can benefit from connecting with national law firms with robust resources to help with research. As Registered Nurse and Patient Advocate Karen Selby states, “Just leave it in their hands … They’ll be able to figure it out.”

Landmark Secondary Exposure Cases

Each secondary asbestos exposure case that successfully awards the plaintiff compensation sets precedents for future cases. For example, the California Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that companies are liable for secondary exposure after two landmark lawsuits.

Johnny Kesner Jr. filed the first case after he developed peritoneal mesothelioma from secondary exposure. The children of Lynn Haver, who developed mesothelioma from laundering her husband’s work clothes, filed another suit. This ruling ended a legal bar on secondhand exposure lawsuits in the state.

Notable Secondary Exposure Lawsuits
  • 2023: Henry Pete developed malignant mesothelioma after childhood exposure when his father came home from work covered in asbestos dust. He died before collecting his compensation and his son awaits the $10.3 million jury award.
  • 2022: A jury awarded Craig and Deanne Warren $17.2 million. Deanne’s husband’s work with asbestos products caused her secondary exposure that led to mesothelioma.
  • 2021: A South Carolina jury awarded Robert Weist, the surviving spouse of Kathy Weist, $32 million. Kathy developed mesothelioma from secondary exposure. Her husband, father and uncle worked with asbestos products.
  • 2013: John Panza Jr.’s father worked with asbestos products for 30 years. John Jr. received a diagnosis of mesothelioma in 2012 at the age of 40 and received a verdict of $27.5 million.
  • 2013: A Seattle King County Court jury awarded Phyllis Granville $1.1 million after developing mesothelioma. She came in contact with the dust laundering her husband’s contaminated work clothes.

People with primary or secondary asbestos exposure can file mesothelioma lawsuits against liable companies. Family members of deceased mesothelioma patients may also file a wrongful death lawsuit to seek compensation.

Common Questions About Secondary Asbestos Exposure

What are other names for secondary asbestos?

There are several additional names for secondary asbestos exposure. These terms are often used interchangeably. 

  • Domestic exposure
  • Familial exposure
  • Household exposure
  • Indirect exposure
  • Paraoccupational exposure
  • Secondhand exposure
  • Take-home exposure

These terms describe exposures when someone is in contact with another person with primary asbestos exposure. Spouses and children typically experience secondary exposure.

Can you wash asbestos out of clothes?

It’s impossible to easily wash asbestos from clothes using a regular washing machine. Laundering contaminated clothing can increase exposure risk, spreading the fibers to other clothes and into the air. Employers should provide access to special laundry services that can remove asbestos.

How much asbestos exposure is dangerous?

Any amount of exposure to asbestos is dangerous and can cause mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. There is no safe level of exposure. However, a person’s risk level can increase depending on the frequency and concentration of asbestos contact. Long-term, repeated exposure can raise the risk of developing cancer like malignant mesothelioma.

Can you sue for secondhand asbestos exposure?

Secondary asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma among family members of people who work with asbestos. Asbestos liability varies from state to state. 

Secondhand legal claims aren’t as straightforward as direct exposure claims. However, a mesothelioma lawyer can investigate the source of asbestos and help family members file a successful claim.

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