Secondary Asbestos Exposure

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Francis Perry Wilson, M.D. Medical Reviewer

Secondary asbestos exposure occurs when a person who works with or around asbestos brings the mineral home. Fibers may lodge in clothing or the person’s hair. Loved ones may then experience secondary exposure by inhaling the transferred fibers. This may cause mesothelioma or other asbestos diseases.

01. Overview

What Is Secondary Asbestos Exposure?

Secondary exposure is one of several ways in which people may encounter asbestos. It follows primary or direct exposure and is a form of non-occupational exposure. Secondary exposure is also the primary cause of mesothelioma in women.

Environmental and occupational asbestos exposure can lead to secondary exposure:

  • People who work with asbestos or asbestos-containing materials experience primary exposure. This means they have direct contact with asbestos or asbestos products. If asbestos workers do not properly decontaminate after exposure, the fibers may remain in their clothes or hair. Many workers may be unknowingly exposed, after which, decontamination may not occur. When a primarily exposed person brings asbestos fibers home, household members may then experience secondary exposure.
  • A person who encounters naturally occurring asbestos can bring fibers into the home. Family members could then experience secondary exposure from the transported asbestos fibers.

Secondary exposure commonly occurs at lower concentrations than primary exposure. It may also start at an earlier age, as children can be exposed by an asbestos worker parent.

Secondary exposure can cause asbestos-related diseases including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

Synonyms for Secondary Asbestos Exposure

  • Household asbestos exposure
  • Indirect asbestos exposure
  • Domestic asbestos exposure
  • Para-occupational asbestos exposure
  • Take-home asbestos exposure
  • Secondhand asbestos exposure

How Does Secondary Exposure Differ From Environmental Asbestos Exposure?

Secondary exposure may be confused with environmental asbestos exposure. However, environmental exposure involves direct exposure to asbestos in the natural world. Secondary exposure occurs when someone experiences primary exposure and brings asbestos dust to a second location. Individuals in that second location may then experience secondary exposure.

02. At-Risk Populations

Who Is at Risk of Secondary Exposure?

Asbestos workers are individuals whose job exposes them to asbestos or asbestos-containing materials. Persons who live with asbestos workers are at risk of secondary exposure.

Use of asbestos peaked prior to the 1970s and then declined as regulatory authorities enacted laws restricting its use.

Even at the height of asbestos usage, men were at the greatest risk of exposure. During this period, men were more likely to hold jobs with a high risk of direct asbestos exposure. At the same time, the family and household members of these men were at risk of secondary asbestos exposure.

Workers in certain industries, such as construction, continue to risk asbestos exposure today. As a result, their loved ones also continue to risk secondary exposure.

Occupations at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Family members of asbestos workers face a risk of secondary exposure. Household members of individuals in the following occupations may have experienced secondhand asbestos exposure:

Note: The list above includes current and historical occupations with substantial asbestos exposure risks. It is not an exhaustive list.

Data from published medical studies aligns with this information. One publication reviewed more than 30 case reports of domestic asbestos exposure. Wives and family members of asbestos workers were the most common subjects of these reports. The researchers found these asbestos worker family members had an elevated risk of pleural mesothelioma versus the average person.

Secondary Exposure Risks Persist Despite Declining Asbestos Usage

Usage of asbestos products has declined since the 1970s. That same decline has not yet appeared in asbestos-related conditions. Experts attribute this lag to the latency period of asbestos diseases. For example, mesothelioma has a latency period ranging from around 10 to 50 years. This means it can take between 10 and 50 years for symptoms to appear after initial asbestos exposure.

Thus, people who experienced secondary exposure in the 1970s may only recently have begun showing signs of mesothelioma. Family members of asbestos workers should report their exposure and any mesothelioma symptoms to a physician as soon as they arise.

The United States has not yet fully banned asbestos. As a result, workers in certain industries and their loved ones continue to risk exposure.

The W.R. Grace Company: An Example of Every Form of Asbestos Exposure

One of the most studied examples of asbestos exposure comes from Libby, Montana. The W.R. Grace Company employed hundreds of asbestos workers in a vermiculite mine just outside of Libby. The mine remained active from the 1920s through 1990. The vermiculite from the mine contained up to 26% amphibole asbestos fibers.

The activities of the mine provided ample opportunity for asbestos exposure in Libby residents. Mine workers experienced direct occupational exposure. Family members of W.R. Grace miners experienced secondary, household exposure. Finally, Libby residents with no affiliation to the mine may have encountered environmental asbestos exposure. Studies have found cases of both pleural mesothelioma and peritoneal mesothelioma among Libby residents.

One Libby-based study underscored the risks of secondary asbestos exposure. Researchers investigated the causes of death for Libby residents from 1979 – 2011. They identified 694 asbestos-related deaths. Only 85 male and two female deaths occurred in individuals with a history of employment with W.R. Grace.

A substantial number of female Libby residents died from asbestos-related conditions but were not occupationally exposed. Thus, the researchers concluded these women may have encountered non-occupational asbestos exposure. This information suggests the women developed asbestos diseases due to either secondary asbestos exposure or environmental exposure.

Sources: Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology and Environmental Health Perspectives

The Reality of Secondary Asbestos Exposure: Heather Von St. James

Mesothelioma survivor Heather Von St. James knows the risks of secondary asbestos exposure all too well. Heather’s father worked with asbestos and often brought home his work coat. As a child, she frequently wore her father’s coat while doing chores. Unbeknownst to Heather and her family, that coat was covered in asbestos fibers.

Years later, Heather received a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis. At just 36 years old, she was given 15 months to live. After seeking the opinion of an experienced mesothelioma doctor, Heather underwent aggressive treatment. She is now cancer-free. Heather spends much of her time advocating for mesothelioma patients and the ban of asbestos.

Studies Say Secondary Asbestos Exposure Is the Most Common Cause of Mesothelioma in Women

Heather’s story of secondary asbestos exposure is not unique, especially among women. Research shows secondary exposure is the most common form of asbestos exposure in women.

One study investigated mesothelioma and asbestos exposure in 91 women. Of the women, 15% experienced only secondary exposure. Researchers found 29% of women in the study experienced both household and environmental asbestos exposure.

This means about 44% of women in the study experienced some form of secondary asbestos exposure. In comparison, only 7% of men experienced secondary exposure. According to the authors, secondary asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma in women.

In another study, researchers evaluated more than 1,000 mesothelioma cases in Italy. Secondary asbestos exposure caused 35 of these cases, 33 of which occurred in women. All 35 cases involved household exposure resulting from an asbestos worker family member. Many of these asbestos workers were employed in shipyards.

The authors concluded secondary exposure increased the risk of pleural mesothelioma in women.

03. Sources of Secondhand Exposure

Common Sources of Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos particles are friable, or easily crumbled, and can become airborne. Asbestos fibers are also abrasive. These properties let asbestos fibers cling to fabric, hair and other materials.

Many workers may not realize they have been exposed to asbestos. Such workers may then skip decontamination, as it seems unnecessary at the time. If they fail to decontaminate after asbestos exposure, they may unwittingly bring home asbestos fibers. Anything a worker encounters while still carrying asbestos fibers can become a source of secondary exposure.


If an asbestos worker carries asbestos dust into their vehicle, the fibers may get stuck in the car. Any fabrics, carpet or other woven material could retain asbestos fibers.


Couches, chairs, beds and other furniture contain materials capable of retaining asbestos fibers. If an asbestos-carrying person or their contaminated clothes encounter furniture, asbestos dust may be left behind. This may transform the furniture into a source of secondary asbestos exposure.


It may seem illogical at first, but washing asbestos-contaminated clothes can cause domestic exposure. Conventional washing machines are not capable of removing asbestos dust. Instead, they may spread the fibers to other items in the wash.

Washing asbestos-contaminated work clothes also presents a risk to the person doing the laundry. The fibers may become airborne through the course of washing. The washer may then inhale the fibers while doing the laundry.

Individuals exposed to asbestos should not try to wash their own contaminated clothing. Instead, they should follow their employer’s decontamination procedures. This may include having asbestos-contaminated clothes washed at a specialty facility.

Laundry is among the most common sources of secondary exposure reported in asbestos studies. In one study, individuals who washed asbestos-containing clothes had similar lung asbestos content to shipyard workers.

Personal Contact

If an asbestos worker carries fibers home, the worker may serve as a source of secondary exposure. Ordinary interactions, such as hugs and pats on the back, may release asbestos fibers into the air. Once airborne, other family members may inhale or ingest the fibers. Thus, normal interaction with spouses, sons and daughters could lead to asbestos exposure.

04. Secondary Exposure Risks

Risks of Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is a carcinogen, meaning it can cause cancer. In fact, asbestos can cause several cancers and related illnesses. Secondary exposure often occurs at lower concentrations than occupational exposure. However, there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. As such, secondary exposure may increase the risk of mesothelioma and all asbestos illnesses.


Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer that develops in the lining of certain tissues. The most common forms are pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma.

According to researchers, the risk of mesothelioma increases with the level of asbestos exposure. However, secondary exposure may reach levels equivalent to certain occupational exposures.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer occurs when cells within the lung become cancerous. Asbestos exposure can cause lung cancer. Asbestos-related lung cancer causes the same symptoms as any other lung cancer.

In one study, researchers determined up to 18% of lung cancers may have been caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos-exposure and smoking may compound the risk of lung cancer.


Asbestosis is a non-cancerous lung disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. It is also called diffuse pulmonary fibrosis. This condition is characterized by widespread thickening and scarring of lung tissue. Fibrotic scarring can make breathing difficult.

Asbestosis may develop 15 years or more after asbestos exposure. The higher a person’s level of asbestos exposure, the higher their risk of developing asbestosis.

Pleural Plaques

Pleural plaques are a benign condition caused by asbestos. Pleural plaques are areas of thickened tissue on the surface of the pleura (the lining around the lung). These plaques may calcify and harden, but they usually do not cause symptoms.

In one study, roughly 89% of asbestos-exposed adults developed pleural plaques. In another study, asbestos-exposed adults had about 6.8 times the risk of developing mesothelioma if they also had pleural plaques.

Doctors and scientists have been studying the risks of secondary exposure for decades. For instance, a 1978 publication looked into mesothelioma deaths from secondary exposure in New York. The mesothelioma patients were all women whose husbands or fathers worked in an asbestos industry. The study found these women had 10 times the risk of mesothelioma versus women who did not encounter secondary exposure.

Asbestos at Home: Risks for Direct and Secondary Exposure

Another study evaluated dust samples from asbestos factory workers’ homes. The study revealed asbestos fibers still present 20 – 25 years after the factory ceased operations. This means the threat of secondary asbestos exposure may persist much longer than one might expect. It also highlights the value in having homes tested for asbestos.

Even in homes that were never occupied by asbestos workers, asbestos may still be present. Older homes built before 1980 may contain asbestos products such as floor tiles or adhesives.

Home occupants should have their homes tested for asbestos by a professional. Suspected asbestos materials should not be disturbed. If asbestos is present, only professionals should attempt to remove or dispose of it.

05. Secondary Exposure Lawsuits

Lawsuits and Compensation for Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos victims who develop a related illness may be eligible for financial compensation. This includes patients who developed an asbestos-related disease following secondary exposure.

One option for compensation is filing a lawsuit. Asbestos liability cases may focus on a company or employer’s failure to warn of asbestos or other legal infractions. In order to succeed, these cases must usually trace the asbestos exposure to a definite source. This task may prove difficult for victims of secondary asbestos exposure.

However, an experienced mesothelioma lawyer can help plaintiffs trace their exposure. Law firms specializing in asbestos and mesothelioma have experience investigating the source of exposure. They can also help potential plaintiffs navigate state laws. Liability laws regarding secondary exposure and asbestos lawsuits differ by state. For instance, Arizona laws do not hold companies responsible for injuries related to secondhand exposure.

An experienced legal team can help secondary-exposure victims determine eligibility for lawsuits and other legal options. Asbestos lawyers will also determine the best jurisdiction or state to file a lawsuit. They can handle the entire filing process on the individual’s behalf.

$27.5 Million Secondary Asbestos Exposure Verdict

John Panza Jr. grew up in an asbestos worker household. His father worked at Eaton Airflex, a brake manufacturer, from 1963 to 1993. John’s father was often present when other employees worked on asbestos products.

The dust from those products came home on his father’s clothing. This clothing then became a source of secondary asbestos exposure. John’s dad died of lung cancer in 1994. John was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2012.

John underwent multimodal treatment. This included extrapleural pneumonectomy, a surgery that removes the cancerous lung. He also completed several rounds of chemotherapy and at least one round of radiation.

John and his wife filed a lawsuit against the responsible asbestos product manufacturer, National Friction Products. In 2013, an Ohio court awarded Panza and his wife $27.5 million in legal damages. The award included $12.5 million in damages for John and $15 million for his wife.

06. Common Questions

Common Questions About Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Can I Sue for Secondary Asbestos Exposure?

Research indicates secondary asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other illnesses. However, asbestos liability laws vary state-to-state. An experienced asbestos and mesothelioma attorney can help victims of secondary exposure file a lawsuit.

Do All Asbestos-Exposed Individuals Get an Asbestos Disease?

Asbestos exposure does not guarantee development of mesothelioma, lung cancer or other asbestos illnesses. However, it does increase the risk of these conditions. Concerned individuals should speak to a physician about their history of exposure and asbestos illness concerns.

What Are the Symptoms of Asbestos Exposure?

Asbestos exposure alone may not cause symptoms. However, asbestos-related conditions may. Learn more about the symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos illnesses by clicking the corresponding link below:

What Is the Prognosis for Asbestos-Related Illnesses?

Survival times for all asbestos illnesses vary according to several factors. The exact type of illness, stage at diagnosis, treatment approach and patient health can all have an effect. In general, mesothelioma life expectancy ranges from 18 to 31 months. For lung cancer, 5-year survival ranges from 3% to 63%.

What Is the Safe Level of Asbestos Exposure?

There is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Even low levels of exposure can lead to mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos diseases.