Understanding Secondary Asbestos Exposure for Family Members


Working directly with or around asbestos-containing products is the single greatest risk factor for developing asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma and lung cancer later in life.

If you worked in an at-risk occupation or were otherwise exposed to asbestos in the course of your employment, your risks for developing devastating asbestos diseases increase dramatically. But what if you didn’t work in a profession or industry known for asbestos use? Could you still be at risk for exposure and mesothelioma years down the line?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

Today, it’s an accepted fact that secondary exposure to asbestos can lead to mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases. And while this form of exposure may not be as common as the exposure that occurs when someone directly and regularly handles asbestos-containing materials, it is still a significant concern for millions of people – and particularly for families and others who lived with workers exposed to asbestos outside of the home.

At SWMW Law, we’ve earned national recognition fighting for victims diagnosed with mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other diseases caused by exposure to asbestos – both on the job and in secondary locations. Here, we provide some essential information about secondary asbestos exposure, people most at risk, and the rights of victims diagnosed with devastating asbestos diseases.

What is Secondary Asbestos Exposure?

Secondary asbestos exposure is one of several ways that people can be exposed to harmful asbestos fibers. As a form of non-occupational exposure, it is less common than the exposure that occurs when someone directly handles or works with asbestos-containing materials.

There are two ways secondary exposure can occur:

  • Occupational take-home exposure. People in occupations that require them to work with or near asbestos or asbestos-containing materials are directly exposed to asbestos fibers that can settle onto their hair, clothing, equipment, tools, and other belongings. When workers do not properly decontaminate after exposure (which was common in the past because most workers were unaware that they were exposed to asbestos), they can transport asbestos fibers into their homes and expose their loved ones and others with whom they live to the mineral.
  • Environmental take-home exposure. People who encounter naturally occurring asbestos may experience a similar settling of asbestos or asbestos dust onto their bodies and belongings and subsequently bring these asbestos fibers into their homes where family members live.

Secondary asbestos exposure is often used synonymously with “second-hand exposure” and “take-home exposure” and is distinctly different than environmental exposure. While environmental exposure occurs when someone is directly exposed to asbestos in the natural world, secondary exposure involves someone being exposed to asbestos that has been transported from one place (often a work site) to a second location.

The Risks of Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Secondary exposure typically involves exposure to lower concentrations of asbestos than direct or primary exposure. But because there is no level of asbestos exposure that is considered safe, any amount of second-hand exposure can increase a person’s risks of developing asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, and more. These diseases are caused by the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers and have latency periods of 20-50 years, meaning it can take decades before symptoms first appear.

Secondary exposure also has unique risks that other forms of exposure do not – particularly in that it can begin at an earlier age. This typically occurs when a parent exposed to asbestos on the job brings asbestos dust into homes where children live.

Who Is at Risk for Secondary Asbestos Exposure?

Regardless of what you call it and no matter if the take-home exposure results from someone’s primary exposure to asbestos on the job or from the environment, those most at risk for secondary asbestos exposure are those who live with directly exposed individuals.

This can include:

Asbestos was used in staggering quantities during most of the 20th century and could be found in a variety of building materials, consumer products, and machinery components. As such, people with family members who worked in industries known for heavy asbestos use during this time would have likely experienced secondary exposure, especially since protection and decontamination practices were uncommon.

Secondary exposure to asbestos in homes may have occurred when:

  • Touching or hugging exposed worker family members
  • Washing clothes and other belongings exposed to asbestos
  • Dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, or otherwise cleaning surfaces and furniture with asbestos dust
  • Sharing a family vehicle used by an asbestos-exposed worker

While the use of asbestos has declined since the 1980s, millions of workers were still exposed to asbestos-containing materials found in older homes, buildings, and equipment. Families of workers in industries known for exposure to legacy asbestos – such as construction, demolition, and remodeling–still faced significant secondary exposure risks well into the 21st century and present day.

What the Research Says

Numerous studies conducted over the years have added to a growing cache of evidence about the dangers of secondary asbestos exposure – particularly as they relate to risks faced by women:

  • Researchers resoundingly agree that while men are most often diagnosed with mesothelioma and asbestos diseases, women have long been the most common victims of secondary exposure. Given traditional gender roles during much of the 20th century, women often laundered their husbands’ work clothes, cleaned their work shoes, and washed other belongings carried home from asbestos-exposed work sites. This type of secondary exposure is sometimes referred to as “domestic asbestos exposure.”
  • As the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has noted, the inhalation of asbestos fibers brought home by exposed workers and the handling of workers’ exposed clothing and belongings are established contributors to diseases like mesothelioma.

Many studies have confirmed these findings, including:

  • A 2018 study published in Respirology Case Reports found that three women diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma were likely caused by their secondary exposure as a wife, daughter, and mother who lived with asbestos-exposed workers and laundered their asbestos-laden clothing.
  • A study from the late 1990s showed more than half of female study participants diagnosed with mesothelioma were victims of take-home exposure. Another study published in Translational Oncology found that as much as 87.5% of mesothelioma cases caused by non-occupational exposure involve women.
  • A 1978 study published in The Lancet found a 10-fold increased relative risk for mesothelioma among women with a father or husband who worked in an asbestos-related industry.

Your Rights After a Mesothelioma Diagnosis

Victims diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-diseases may have options when it comes to securing justice and compensation for their losses. This includes:

  • Asbestos bankruptcy trust claims. Companies that knowingly exposed workers and their families to asbestos were ordered to fund trusts when they filed for bankruptcy to reorganize or liquidate their businesses. These trusts, which were funded with billions of dollars, are designed to compensate victims who can prove that they were exposed to asbestos.
  • Civil personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits. In some cases, victims diagnosed with asbestos diseases or surviving family members with relatives who died from an asbestos-related disease may be able to pursue civil lawsuits against solvent asbestos companies or other entities that negligently contributed to their exposure. As with asbestos trust claims, victims will need to establish a history of asbestos exposure.

Because occupational exposure is by far the most significant and common risk factor for asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, showing that a victim worked in an at-risk occupation, held a job where there was verifiable exposure to asbestos, or was otherwise exposed to asbestos in the course of their employment are common and accepted ways to prove a claim and recover compensation.

For victims who did not hold jobs like these, however, proving secondary exposure can be a more challenging, though not impossible, task.

In these situations, documenting a history of secondary exposure begins with analyzing the work performed by loved ones and others with whom victims may have lived. Often, we find victims typically had:

  • Spouses in at-risk occupations
  • Children who worked in industries that used asbestos
  • Parents who worked on asbestos-exposed work sites
  • Roommates, housemates, or neighbors who were exposed to asbestos at work
  • Family members who brought home asbestos-containing materials or work supplies

At SWMW Law, our award-winning team has extensive experience handling secondary asbestos exposure cases and has recovered millions of dollars for victims who were exposed to asbestos brought home by their husbands, fathers, children, and other family or household members.

For example, we secured a $9.7 jury verdict for the family of a Wisconsin mother who died in 2019 from mesothelioma caused by secondary exposure. Our attorneys were able to effectively prove that our client had been exposed to asbestos as a child when her stepfather, who worked as a sheet-metal mechanic in the Milwaukee area, brought asbestos fibers into the home on his clothing. We also secured a $2.7 million settlement for a client diagnosed with mesothelioma due to secondary exposure in Missouri.

We know that gathering details about the nature of a family member or housemate’s work, the time that a victim lived with that person, and the case-specific risks of take-home exposure are critical steps in building a strong case. This is why we devote considerable time and effort to conducting meticulous case histories and investigations and work closely with trusted experts who provide testimony that can support our clients’ claims. If you have questions about your rights and legal options following a mesothelioma or asbestos disease diagnosis, we want to help.

SWMW Law proudly serves victims and families nationwide. We offer FREE consultations and handle cases on contingency, which means there’s no cost to hire and no fee unless we win. Call (855) 744-1922 or contact us online to speak with an attorney.