Secondary Exposure to Asbestos

People who are exposed to asbestos at work can carry asbestos fibers home on their clothing, skin or hair, putting family members at risk for disease. If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of secondary asbestos exposure from the workplace, you may be eligible to file a claim.

Legally Reviewed By: Darron E. Berquist
Managing Attorney | Mesothelioma & Asbestos in New York

Darron Berquist

Legally Reviewed By: Darron E. Berquist
Managing Attorney | Mesothelioma & Asbestos in New York

Exposure to asbestos can lead to a number of diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. Although occupational asbestos exposure (which occurs at work) is the most common, the family members of people who work with asbestos are also at risk because asbestos can be carried home by the worker. This is known as secondary asbestos exposure, and it’s the most common cause of mesothelioma among women.

How does secondary asbestos exposure occur?

Secondary exposure to asbestos occurs when a person lives with someone who works with or around asbestos. If proper work precautions are not in place, the worker may carry microscopic asbestos fibers on their clothing, hair and skin when they leave the workplace. When they come home from work, these fibers enter the home, exposing family members.

Secondary asbestos exposure may occur a few different ways:

In the past, before asbestos was as stringently regulated as it is now, workers would generally come straight home from work without showering or changing clothes. This could result in them bringing significant levels of asbestos with them into their home environments. During this time period, it was also common for women to do most of the housework. This could expose them to high levels of asbestos through activities like laundry and vacuuming.

Although asbestos use is less common today, there are still people being exposed to asbestos at work. An estimated 1.3 million construction workers in the United States are considered to be at risk for occupational asbestos exposure. If their employers don’t ensure that they can change clothing and shower before leaving work, the families of these workers are at risk for secondary asbestos exposure.

Secondary asbestos exposure is also known by a few other names, including:

  • Para-occupational asbestos exposure
  • Household asbestos exposure
  • Domestic asbestos exposure
  • Secondhand asbestos exposure

These terms all mean the same thing as secondary asbestos exposure. Different research papers may use different terms to refer to the same type of exposure.

Is secondary asbestos exposure the same as environmental asbestos exposure?

Secondary asbestos exposure is not the same as environmental asbestos exposure. Environmental exposure occurs when someone is directly exposed to asbestos that is present in their environment. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, and it can be present in outdoor air, soil and water. The natural concentrations are usually very low, but concentrations can be much higher near sites like asbestos mines or plants that manufacture asbestos-containing products, leading to a risk of disease from environmental asbestos exposure.

By contrast, secondary exposure occurs when someone is exposed to asbestos fibers carried into their home by someone who was working with or around asbestos. This involves exposure to a higher level of asbestos, rather than to the low background level that is usually present in the environment. A number of serious diseases are caused by secondary exposure to asbestos.

Asbestos worker

What diseases can be caused by secondary asbestos exposure?

The diseases that can be caused by asbestos don’t differ based on the route of exposure. Once asbestos has entered the body by any route, it can cause disease. The diseases that are most strongly linked to asbestos exposure include:


This is a type of cancer that originates in the mesothelium, a membrane that surrounds certain organs of the body. The majority of cases of mesothelioma occur in the pleura, the mesothelium that surrounds the lung, or in the peritoneum, the mesothelium that surrounds the digestive tract. Most cases of mesothelioma are linked to some type of asbestos exposure.

Lung cancer

This is a type of cancer that occurs in the lung tissue itself rather than in the membrane surrounding the lung. Exposure to asbestos significantly increases the risk of lung cancer. There are also other risk factors for lung cancer, such as smoking, and these can interact with asbestos exposure to cause a massive increase in lung cancer risk. People who smoke and are exposed to asbestos have 50 times the baseline lung cancer risk.


This is a noncancerous disease in which scar tissue builds up throughout the lungs, making breathing difficult. Although asbestosis is not a type of cancer, it is still a serious disease and can be fatal. Currently, there is no medical treatment that can change the progression of the disease. The levels of asbestos required to cause asbestosis are higher than those that cause cancer. Asbestosis is usually associated with occupational asbestos exposure, but it’s also possible for secondary exposure to cause this disease.

Asbestos exposure has also been found to be associated with the development of other types of cancer, including throat cancer, ovarian cancer, stomach cancer and colon cancer.

How does asbestos cause disease?

Asbestos is made up of very tiny mineral fibers. These fibers are so tiny that a person generally can’t detect them in the air. The fibers are also sharp. When asbestos fibers are inhaled, these sharp fibers can embed themselves into the lung tissue. From there, they can work their way into the pleura, the membrane that surrounds the lung. Asbestos fibers can also be coughed up and swallowed. In the digestive system, they can become embedded into the tissue of the digestive system and work their way into the peritoneum, a membrane surrounding the digestive tract.

When the body detects the presence of the asbestos fibers, an inflammatory reaction is triggered. However, asbestos is an extremely stable mineral. Even stomach acid can’t break it down. Because the body can’t remove the asbestos, the inflammatory reaction continues and can go on for many years.

This sustained inflammatory reaction causes changes in the body’s tissues. It can lead to scarring, which is how asbestosis develops. The inflammation can also cause changes in the DNA of cells that lead to them becoming cancerous. It generally takes decades after asbestos exposure to develop an asbestos-related disease; this long period of time is known as the latency period.

How dangerous is secondary exposure to asbestos?

Occupational asbestos exposure is by far the most dangerous type. A 2018 study estimated that more than 90 percent of deaths caused by asbestos are due to work-related asbestos exposure. This is because a person is exposed to very high levels of asbestos while they’re working with the mineral. Secondary asbestos exposure will tend to result in exposure to lower levels than those that the worker was directly exposed to.

However, secondary asbestos exposure certainly can cause disease, and the risk it poses is significant. Studies have demonstrated that women with a history of household exposure to asbestos have 10 times the risk for mesothelioma when compared to those who were not exposed.

In fact, secondary asbestos exposure causes most cases of mesothelioma in women. A 1997 study found that more than half of women with mesothelioma had a history of secondary asbestos exposure, and a 2014 study confirmed this figure. This gender difference exists because men are far more likely to be employed in the types of occupations that experience work-related asbestos exposures. This was particularly true during the 1970s and earlier, when men made up the vast majority of the industrial workforce. During this period, women were much more likely to be exposed to asbestos due to their husband’s job.

Secondary Asbestos Exposure in Pets

Exposure to asbestos can cause the same asbestos-related illnesses in pets as humans. According to the Animal Health Foundation, mesothelioma in pets is rare, and dogs are more likely than cats to develop mesothelioma. Pets may inhale or ingest asbestos fibers when they are airborne.

Pets often comfort themselves in a worker’s absence by sniffing laundry, which may contain asbestos if the worker wore asbestos-contaminated clothing home. Exposure may be most significant upon an exposed worker’s return home, when pets excitedly greet the workers by jumping on them, licking, sniffing, or sitting in their laps. Cats may lick asbestos fibers trapped in their fur while grooming.

The latency period between exposure and the onset of illness is significantly shorter in pets, with a probable latency of eight years or less in dogs, according to a 1991 study published by the National Academies Press. In a study of 30 cats diagnosed with mesothelioma, the cats’ ages ranged from 11 months to 17 years, with a median age of 10 years, indicating a shorter latency in felines as well.

Symptoms of Mesothelioma in Pets

Dogs and cats with mesothelioma may exhibit the following symptoms, which will vary based on the type of mesothelioma your pet has developed:

  • Labored breathing
  • Cough
  • Muffled heart sounds
  • Strange sounds coming from the chest or abdominal areas
  • Abdominal enlargement as a result of the build-up of fluid
  • Enlarged scrotum
  • Intolerance to exercise
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting

How is mesothelioma in pets diagnosed?

If you are aware that you may have been exposed to asbestos at work, it is important to mention this to the veterinarian. Since mesothelioma is even rarer in pets than in humans, without this knowledge, your vet may not think to check for it.

Your veterinarian will likely begin with a general physical examination and perform imaging tests, beginning with an X-ray. Depending on your pet’s symptoms, radiograph and ultrasound imaging may also be used to identify masses and effusions. Your vet may also run laboratory tests on blood, urine, or stools. A biopsy may also be necessary to confirm a diagnosis.

Mesothelioma Prognosis and Treatment for Pets

The prognosis following a mesothelioma diagnosis in pets is similar to humans in that there is no cure. A study published by Veterinary and Comparative Oncology found that the median survival time for all dogs studied was 195 days, including a 234-day median survival time for dogs receiving chemotherapy and 29 days for dogs not receiving chemotherapy.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental and Clinical Cancer Research analyzed the effects of the drug piroxicam in conjunction with platinum-based intracavitary chemotherapy in two dogs and one cat diagnosed with mesothelioma. This combination effectively controlled secondary malignant effusions and resulted in one dog going into remission.

A study of six dogs published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine found that the chemotherapy drug cisplatin was effective at controlling malignant pleural mesothelioma and abdominal effusion in five of six dogs with minimal side effects.

While these studies are promising, they are small, and more research is needed. Mesothelioma treatment in pets will generally focus on keeping your pet comfortable. This may include procedures such as draining excess fluids and providing medication for pain. It will be important to limit your pet’s activities as long as your pet experiences respiratory distress.

What should you do if you’ve experienced harm from secondary asbestos exposure?

Companies are responsible for protecting the health not only of their workers but also of their workers’ families. They should offer workers respiratory protection while they’re working with asbestos-containing materials and should also have a decontamination area where workers can change out of asbestos-contaminated clothing and shower off so they don’t bring asbestos home to their families.

If companies fail to provide proper protections, this may lead to secondary asbestos exposure for a worker’s family. If a family member develops an asbestos-related disease due to this secondary exposure, then the company may be held liable for paying compensation for the harm caused by their negligence.

It generally takes decades after asbestos exposure for disease to develop. However, once you have a diagnosis, you have only a limited amount of time in which you can file a claim due to the statute of limitations. The specific amount of time varies from state to state. It’s important not to delay in getting the legal process started because you could lose your opportunity to seek justice for the harm that was done to you.

Contact an attorney with experience in handling these types of cases to discuss your eligibility to file.

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