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.
Secondary asbestos exposure is also called: Household exposure Domestic exposure Take-home exposure Indirect exposure Paraoccupational exposure Secondhand 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
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.
How Does Secondary Asbestos Exposure Happen?
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.
Can You Wash Asbestos Out of Clothes?
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.
What Are the Risks of Secondary Exposure?
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. 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. Source: https://www.asbestos.com/exposure/secondary/