Secondary asbestos exposure happens when an asbestos worker unknowingly brings asbestos fibers home, putting residents of the home at risk. Secondary exposure to asbestos causes the same diseases as primary exposure including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
Primary exposure to asbestos happens to people who work with asbestos. This kind of exposure was common among men in the 20th century because they were more likely to be employed in labor jobs that used asbestos products.
Secondary exposure to asbestos is more common among women and children. Before strict regulations were enacted in the 1970s, it was common for asbestos workers to unknowingly bring asbestos home on their work clothes, shoes and tools.
Secondary asbestos exposure is just as dangerous as primary exposure. Any amount of asbestos exposure can cause serious health effects. Repeated, long-term secondary exposure causes the same diseases and cancers as primary exposure including mesothelioma.
In 1897, one of the first physicians to speak up about disease in asbestos workers also commented on the ill health of the workers’ family members. Legally documented cases of secondary exposure trace back to the 1940s in the United Kingdom. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the United States began to recognize the risks of secondary exposure.
It sometimes gets confused with environmental exposure and community contamination.
Environmental exposure happens when people come in contact with naturally occurring asbestos deposits. Community contamination exposure happens when an asbestos mine, processing plant or manufacturing facility contaminates a community with asbestos.
Secondary asbestos exposure is less common today than it was decades ago. Employers are now required to provide workers with facilities to change out of contaminated clothing before going home. They are also required to provide shower facilities so workers can wash asbestos off their skin and hair before going home. Employers must also use special laundering services to properly clean contaminated work clothes for reuse. Workers typically do not have access to these specialized laundering services and should not attempt to wash their own contaminated clothing.
“For a long time, I felt so guilty. I thought where was I and what did I do wrong? I was blaming myself, but it’s not my fault.”
— Judy Goodson, peritoneal mesothelioma survivor diagnosed in 2013
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Any kind of asbestos exposure is much less common today than even 20 years ago. But women and children faced an increased risk for secondhand exposure when asbestos use was high during the mid-20th century.
At that time, men made up the majority of the industrial working class. The occupations within these industrial settings often required workers to handle asbestos-containing products. Workers returning home might carry fibers on their hair, skin and clothes and indirectly expose their families and others living with them.
Secondary exposure is the cause for a significant portion of mesothelioma cases among women and children. If children are exposed to asbestos indirectly at an early age, they may develop an asbestos-related disease in their adult years.
Mesothelioma in children is not common and is generally not associated with asbestos exposure. There is a latency period of 20 to 50 years between time of exposure and development of an asbestos-related disease.
Asbestos fibers have a rough texture. The fibers can break into microscopic pieces. The rough texture and tiny size makes it easy for the fibers to stick to clothing, hair and skin.
There are three common sources of secondary asbestos exposure in the home.
The clothing of workers who handled asbestos products provided a significant risk for secondhand exposure. Because of the jagged structure of the fibers, the microscopic particles could easily attach to clothing. Anyone handling or washing these work clothes likely experienced indirect exposure.
You cannot easily wash asbestos out of clothes. The risk of trying can expose you to asbestos.
Regular washing machines are not designed to clean asbestos-contaminated clothing. Trying to wash contaminated clothing will cause asbestos fibers to become airborne. It will also contaminate any other clothes that are put into the washer.
You should properly dispose of any clothing that is exposed to asbestos. Contaminated clothing must be put in a watertight bag or container. The bag or container must be labeled as asbestos waste. Then it must be taken to a landfill that is equipped to dispose of asbestos waste.
Call your local government office for information on local landfills that accept asbestos waste.
If a worker didn’t change out of asbestos contaminated clothing before returning home, fibers could have become embedded in the couch, chairs, carpet, bed and other pieces of furniture.
If a worker came home with fibers attached to their hair, skin or clothes and later hugged their children or spouse, family members were likely indirectly exposed to the carcinogen. Some mesothelioma cases have developed from children sitting on the lap of their father or grandfather after he came home from work.
While family members didn’t have any direct contact with asbestos-containing products, the amount of dust brought home was enough to cause mesothelioma or a related disease later in life.
The risks of secondary exposure are the same as primary exposure. Secondary asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. It can also cause less serious asbestos-related diseases such as pleural plaques.
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.
Extensive research has proven that secondary asbestos exposure causes serious health effects.
Between 1941 and 1954, researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City studied the health of 679 family members from the 1,664 workers employed at the Union Asbestos and Rubber Company factory in Paterson, New Jersey. Researchers discovered five cases of mesothelioma among factory workers’ family members. Sources of asbestos dust were also found in the homes of former Paterson factory workers 20 years after the factory shut down.
A 1978 study found a 10-fold increased risk of mesothelioma among women with secondary asbestos exposure compared to the general population. The majority of women in the study who developed mesothelioma lived with an asbestos insulator and laundered their clothing.
A 1997 study of mesothelioma in women found more than half were exposed secondhand. Only 19 percent were exposed directly through their occupation.
A 2017 Italian study published in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health looked at 1,063 cases of mesothelioma and found 35 of them were caused by secondhand asbestos exposure. Of the 35 cases, 33 were women and two were men. Asbestos exposure in the workers who unknowingly brought asbestos home predominantly occurred in shipyards.
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Only a handful of states have a history of awarding compensation to victims of secondary asbestos exposure. Some of these states include New Jersey, California and Washington.
Determining liability in cases of secondary asbestos exposure isn’t as simple as direct exposure. People who were exposed on the job can often easily identify which products led to their exposure.
Those exposed secondhand may not know which products contributed to their exposure. This is especially true if the person who brought the asbestos home has passed away.
Each state has its own laws regarding how asbestos liability is determined. For example, New Jersey and North Dakota have recently rejected secondary asbestos exposure claims altogether. Other states, such as California, have awarded compensation to victims of secondary exposure.
Like plaintiffs who are directly exposed to asbestos, claimants indirectly injured by asbestos may be eligible for compensation. In order to bring a successful legal claim, they must be able to trace their exposure to a defendant who is liable for failure to warn or protect against the dangers. This usually involves investigating the work history of a family member who was exposed on the job.
New Jersey was among the first states to award compensation to victims of secondary asbestos exposure. In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that spouses of asbestos workers may hold companies liable for illnesses caused by secondhand exposure. In 2016, the same court extended the duty of care beyond spouses to include anyone who lived with an asbestos worker such as children, domestic partners and visitors.
John Panza Jr., a 40-year-old English professor, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2012. For more than 30 years, his father worked at a brake plant where National Friction Products Corp. products were drilled and abraded. As a child, Panza helped his father wash his work clothes. In 2012, Panza filed a lawsuit against National Friction alleging he inhaled fibers from the company’s products that contaminated his father’s clothes.
In 2013, an Ohio jury found National Friction liable for Panza’s illness. It ordered the company to pay Panza and his wife $27.5 million. The award included $515,000 in economic damages, $12 million in noneconomic damages and $15 million for the wife’s loss of consortium claim.
In 2013, Phyllis Granville was awarded $1.1 million by a Seattle King County Court jury for developing mesothelioma as a result of secondary exposure to asbestos. Her husband, Donald, worked as floor tile installer. He worked with numerous asbestos tiles throughout his career. Donald unknowingly brought home asbestos dust on his work clothes, which Phyllis laundered.
In 2011, Barbara Bobo was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. She was exposed to asbestos by laundering her husband’s contaminated work clothes. Her husband, Neil, was exposed to asbestos insulation at a nuclear plant in Athens, Alabama. Neil died from asbestos-related lung cancer in 1997 and Barbara died from mesothelioma in 2013. Before she died, Barbara filed an asbestos lawsuit against the owner of the nuclear plant, the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 2015, Barbara and Neil’s daughters were awarded $3.5 million for their mother’s mesothelioma.
In 2016, the California Supreme Court ruled that companies can be held liable for secondary asbestos exposure that occurs at home. The ruling is connected to two lawsuits. One suit was filed by Johnny Kesner, Jr., who developed peritoneal mesothelioma as a result of secondary exposure. The other suit was brought by the children of Lynn Haver, who developed mesothelioma from laundering her husband’s asbestos-contaminated work clothes. The Supreme Court ruling was signification because it ended a legal bar on lawsuits from people exposed secondhand in California.
Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at Asbestos.com for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure.