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Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Expert Fact Checked

This page was medically reviewed by Francis Perry Wilson, M.D.. For information on our content creation and review process read our editorial guidelines. If you notice an error or have comments or questions on our content please contact us.

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 asbestos exposure and is a form of non-occupational exposure. Secondary exposure is also the main cause of mesothelioma in women.

Secondary asbestos exposure can take different pathways. Because of this, it can easily affect people who had no direct contact with asbestos fibers. It may begin with a person who encounters the mineral at work or in the natural environment:

  • Occupational asbestos exposure: Stray fibers may stick to the clothes or gear worn by people who work with or near asbestos. If the fibers are not removed, workers can carry them home and put loved ones at risk of exposure.
  • Environmental asbestos exposure: Naturally occurring asbestos can stick to clothing or hair during outdoor activities. People may not even realize they picked up the fibers. If a person carries the asbestos elsewhere, family members or others could experience secondary exposure.

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. No amount of asbestos exposure is safe, and secondary exposure can be as dangerous as direct exposure.

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

Synonyms for Secondary Asbestos Exposure

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

Asbestos workers are people with jobs that expose 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 some industries, like construction, still have a risk of asbestos exposure today. As a result, their loved ones are at risk of 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.

Secondhand Asbestos 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 had a vermiculite mine just outside of town. It provided ample opportunities for Libby residents to encounter asbestos fibers:

  • Libby residents with no connections to the mine may have experienced environmental exposure.
  • Mine workers experienced direct, occupational exposure.
  • Miners’ family members had secondary, household exposure.

Researchers have documented pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma among Libby residents.

One Libby-based study underscored the risks of secondary asbestos exposure. It analyzed the asbestos-related deaths of 694 residents. Less than 15% of those deaths were tied to employment with W.R. Grace. This links the bulk of asbestos-related Libby deaths to secondary or environmental exposure.

Source: Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology

Dad Brought Home Asbestos on His Clothes: My Secondhand Exposure Story

My name is Heather Von St. James. As a mesothelioma survivor, I know the risks of secondhand asbestos exposure all too well. My father worked with asbestos and often brought home his work coat. As a kid, I wore this coat while I did chores. But I didn’t realize that coat was covered in asbestos fibers.

Years later, I received a pleural mesothelioma diagnosis. At just 36 years old, I was given just 15 months to live. After seeking the opinion of an experienced mesothelioma doctor, I underwent aggressive treatment. Thanks to my wonderful surgeon and care team, I now have no evidence of cancer. These days, I spend a lot of time advocating for mesothelioma patients and a nationwide asbestos ban. I hope I can help keep some other father from accidentally exposing their child to 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 3% 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-containing materials may be friable — or easily crumbled — and can release dangerous fibers into the air. Asbestos fibers are also tiny and needle-like. These properties let asbestos cling to fabric, hair and other materials.

Many workers may not realize they have been exposed to asbestos. This can lead them to skip decontamination, as it seems unnecessary at the time. In this way, some workers may unwittingly bring home asbestos fibers. Anything a person 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. This can turn the vehicle into a secondary exposure source for future passengers.


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 could 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. For instance, shaking off clothes before washing can release asbestos dust. Anyone working in the area might 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. One study looked at people who experienced different types of exposure. It measured the amount of asbestos in participants’ lung tissue. Those who washed asbestos-containing clothes had similar levels of asbestos to shipyard workers. This study highlights the dangers of handling or washing asbestos-contaminated clothes.

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 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 commonly 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 people trace their exposure. Law firms specializing in asbestos and mesothelioma have experience investigating the source of exposure. They can also help navigate state laws pertaining to these types of cases.

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

Secondary Asbestos Exposure Victim Receives $27.5 Million

An Ohio English professor grew up in an asbestos worker household. His father worked for a brake manufacturer, where others handled asbestos products. This occupation brought asbestos dust into the family home.

The father died of lung cancer in 1994, and his son was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2012. The professor 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.

He and his wife filed a lawsuit against the responsible asbestos product manufacturer, National Friction Products. In 2013, an Ohio court awarded the professor and his wife $27.5 million in legal damages. The award included $12.5 million in damages for him 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 file lawsuits on behalf of victims of secondary exposure.

Can you catch asbestos from someone?

Asbestos is a cancer-causing mineral, not a germ. It is not transmissible in the same way bacteria or viruses are. But people who encounter asbestos fibers can accidentally pass them on. This is called secondary asbestos exposure. For some, this type of exposure can cause serious illnesses.

Does secondary asbestos exposure always cause cancer?

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 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. This includes any amount of secondary asbestos exposure.