Secondary Exposure to Asbestos

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The harmful effects of asbestos have long been recognised as a problem amongst those who previously worked with the substance. 

Somewhat alarmingly, an increasing number of cases involving secondary exposure are now emerging, and we are seeing those who did not work directly with the substance being diagnosed with asbestos related diseases.  Such cases can be just as harmful and often deadly.

Secondary Exposure at Home

Those who worked directly with asbestos often spent their working lives hammering, sawing or sanding the deadly substance without effective protection from their employers to protect them from the harmful dust.  As men made up the majority of the industrial working class, husbands, fathers and brothers brought asbestos fibres into the home on their clothing, in their hair or even on their skin.  Consequently, women and children became exposed to harmful asbestos fibres through a variety of circumstances:

Laundry – The clothing of those who handled asbestos products provided a significant risk for secondary exposure.  Due to the jagged structure of asbestos fibres the particles could easily attach to clothing.  Women who washed the clothing of their male family members would quite often shake the excess dust from their overalls thus causing more fibres to become airborne and therefore inhaled.  This presents a particular risk for those who worked in launderettes who frequently handled the clothing of workers who used asbestos.

Hugs – If a worker arrived home with asbestos fibres attached to their clothing, skin or hair and came into close contact with a family member, that family member would be at increased risk of secondary exposure.  Some known mesothelioma cases have arisen from children sitting on their father or grandfather’s lap following their return from work.  Children who were exposed to asbestos at an early age are more likely to develop an asbestos related disease later in their childhood or early into their adult life.

Furniture – If a worker came into the home having not removed their dusty overalls or asbestos-contaminated clothing and sat down on furniture there is a greater risk that the tiny asbestos fibres would have become embedded in the couch, chairs, bed, carpet or other household furniture and easily transferred.

Much could have been done to prevent primary and secondary exposure to asbestos.  Simple measures such as providing employees with showers and requiring them to change their clothing before going home could have saved lives and caused far fewer diseases.  Despite being aware of the dangers of asbestos, employers in the majority of cases provided no such protection, nor were their workers warned of the dangers of working with asbestos.

Secondary Exposure in the Community

Secondary exposure to asbestos has also emerged as a significant problem for those living in close proximity to asbestos mines or companies who manufacture asbestos related products.  Even today, this still presents a real risk as asbestos use remains legal in certain countries.

An example of such exposure can be seen in the town of Libby, Montana, which was home to a vermiculite mine.  The vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos and was used for insulation.  Although the manufacturing company knew of the dangers of the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite the residents of the town were encouraged to use it in their gardens, in playgrounds and in a number of other places from which widespread contamination resulted. The town is home to 12,000 residents, hundreds of which have been diagnosed with asbestos related diseases.  In fact, 200 have died as a consequence of asbestos exposure. 

Similarities circumstances can be found in towns within close proximity of refineries, power plants, shipyards, rail yards or steel mills.  As long as asbestos use remains legal in certain countries, the dangers of the substance continue to present a very real and imminent risk.

If you or a loved one has been exposed to asbestos and are suffering from an asbestos-related disease, call Thompsons’ lung disease specialists on 0800 0891331. Our experts will talk through the options with you.


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