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A Hidden Risk - Family Members and Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Occupational asbestos exposure may lead to mesothelioma and other deadly diseases decades after the initial exposure. Airborne asbestos fibers can land on a worker’s clothing, skin, hair, and shoes, resulting in the exposed worker taking asbestos home and subjecting family members to secondhand asbestos exposure. Family members sharing a home with exposed workers consequently face a risk of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.

Take Home Asbestos Exposure

What Is Secondary Asbestos Exposure?

Secondary asbestos exposure occurs when someone directly exposed to asbestos at one location carries the material to a second location, exposing others. It most commonly occurs when workers exposed to asbestos on the job bring fibers home on their skin, hair, clothing, and equipment. 

Secondary asbestos exposure is the leading source of exposure to the material for women. According to the CDC, the wives and daughters of workers with significant occupational asbestos exposure had a ten-fold increased risk of developing mesothelioma. Of all occupations, homemakers experienced the highest rates of mesothelioma deaths among women from 1999 to 2020.

Secondary Asbestos Exposure

How Does Secondary Asbestos Exposure Happen?

Asbestos fibers are microscopic and lightweight. When disturbed, they can become airborne and spread throughout the work area. In addition to being inhaled or ingested, asbestos fibers can land on workers’ clothing, hair, skin, and shoes. Because the fibers are undetectable to the naked eye, the worker can unknowingly carry the fibers home. 

Family members may be exposed while hugging the worker or laundering the worker’s clothing. As the worker enters the home, changes clothing, and moves around, the fibers can circulate throughout the home’s air ventilation system. The fibers are virtually indestructible and may be too small for home air conditioning systems to filter, so they persist in the environment and accumulate over time. The worker may also deposit the fibers on furniture, in the automobile, and in other areas where other family members can inhale them.

Family Members and Loved Ones at Risk

The family members of workers in occupations traditionally associated with the heaviest asbestos exposure have the highest incidence of mesothelioma.

Occupations at Risk of Taking Asbestos Home

There is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Although family members are exposed to lower levels of asbestos compared to the workers who carry the fibers home, a meta-analysis published in The International Journal of Environmental Research found that family members of exposed workers had high concentrations of asbestos fibers in their lungs and lung tissue abnormalities associated with an increased risk of mesothelioma.

According to the analysis, the risk of mesothelioma from secondhand asbestos exposure was most likely among the families of workers in occupations traditionally associated with heavy exposure, such as the following:

Occupations Still Exposed to Asbestos

Occupations at Risk of Take Home Asbestos Exposure

  • Construction workers
  • Roofers
  • Floor tile layers
  • Drywallers
  • Boilermakers
  • Shipyard workers
  • Insulators
  • Textile mill workers
  • Factory workers
  • Asbestos, talc, and taconite miners
  • Vermiculite miners and processing plant workers
  • Power plant workers
  • Chemical plant workers

Mesothelioma is a latent illness that takes decades to develop. Family members of workers in these occupations may still face a mesothelioma diagnosis now or in the future as a result of living with a worker in one of these occupations decades ago.

Occupations Still Exposed to Asbestos Today

Although asbestos is not used in manufacturing or building construction today, many buildings and products still harbor it. Thus, workers may still be exposed while working in older buildings, ships, factories, and power plants, and they may continue to unwittingly carry asbestos fibers home. 

Structures containing asbestos may release deadly fibers into the environment when they are renovated, demolished, or destroyed by fire or natural disasters. Workers in the following occupations continue to face a high risk of asbestos exposure today, and they may carry fibers home to their families:

Occupations Still Exposed to Asbestos Today

  • Firefighters
  • Plumbers
  • Search and rescue workers

Secondary Asbestos Exposure in Veterans

Veterans have historically experienced some of the highest levels of asbestos exposure of any occupation, and this is particularly true of the U.S. Navy. The Navy used asbestos so heavily on ships that it was nearly impossible to be anywhere on board without encountering the material. Navy shipyard workers handled asbestos directly while constructing and repairing Navy vessels, taking home a significant amount. 

Asbestos Components on Ships

  • Insulation
  • Pipe lagging
  • Boilers
  • Electrical wiring
  • Bulkheads
  • Engine gaskets

Military personnel also experienced asbestos exposure while building or repairing military aircraft, land vehicles, and older military building structures. Military personnel who worked as firefighters, plumbers, maintenance technicians, and in any trade involving electronics may also have brought home asbestos fibers. Family members living on military bases experienced both take-home exposure and environmental asbestos exposure because military barracks, including family housing, were constructed with asbestos. 

Risk in Women

Secondary asbestos exposure was the most common source of exposure in women when occupational asbestos exposure was at its peak from the early 1900s through the 1970s. Wives and daughters were often the ones who hugged returning workers and laundered their clothing, resulting in a brief, daily encounter with asbestos, which can ultimately be enough to lead to mesothelioma.

Risk in Children

Asbestos is a latent disease that can take 10 to 60 years to develop. Children have more of their lives left to live than adults, so the disease has more time to develop. It is also possible that mesothelioma may be diagnosed at a younger age in people exposed as children.

The scientific literature on childhood asbestos exposure has been unable to draw definitive conclusions about how childhood asbestos exposure affects mesothelioma risks.

Mechanisms of Secondary Asbestos Exposure

When a worker brings home asbestos, family members can be exposed through direct contact with the worker or areas in the home where the asbestos has spread. The most significant secondhand asbestos exposure occurred in this manner from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Asbestos on Clothing

Clothing is the most prevalent source of secondary asbestos exposure. Spouses and sometimes daughters have historically experienced exposure to asbestos on clothes while shaking them out or laundering them. Asbestos fibers can also be left behind in washing machines and dryers and contaminate other clothing, increasing the concentration of asbestos fibers for all family members at all times.  The family members most heavily exposed through clothing were those directly involved in laundering the clothing.

Personal Contact

Wives and children who have ever hugged a worker upon returning home may have been enclosed in an invisible cloud of asbestos dust every time. In addition, children may have been exposed while sitting on the worker’s lap. Asbestos fibers may remain on the worker’s skin and hair even after showering and could end up in the bed, exposing the wife while sleeping. The family members most heavily exposed through clothing were those directly involved in laundering the clothing.


During the era when asbestos exposure was common, families often only had one vehicle, and the exposed worker drove it daily. Workers carrying asbestos fibers home could deposit fibers in the vehicle daily so that all family members would be exposed every time they used the vehicle. If they had occupied the vehicle with all the windows closed, ventilation would have been limited, and asbestos fiber concentrations in automobiles could have accumulated to high levels.


When a worker returns home carrying asbestos fibers, they can fall off of the worker and land on any furniture the worker sits on. Every time another family member uses the furniture, the asbestos fibers can become airborne, and the family member could inhale a small amount. Over time, this alone can account for millions of inhaled asbestos fibers.

Mechanisms of Secondary Asbestos Exposure

OSHA limits the concentration of asbestos fibers in the workplace to 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter over an eight-hour time-weighted average. OSHA requires workers to exercise such precautions as the following when handling asbestos to avoid exposing themselves to asbestos, spreading it within the workplace, or taking it home:

How to Prevent Bringing Asbestos Home

  • Seal off areas containing asbestos.
  • Wear disposable protective clothing inside the containment area.
  • Take a decontamination shower.
  • Use appropriate HEPA filtration equipment.
  • Test the air before unsealing any containment area.
  • Do not handle asbestos without wetting it first.
  • Do not sand asbestos flooring materials.
  • Dispose of asbestos in properly sealed bags.
Take Home Asbestos Exposure

Health Risks of Secondary Asbestos Exposure

The spouses and children of workers exposed to asbestos may develop deadly cancerous and non-cancerous diseases decades after exposure, even if they never directly worked with asbestos themselves.


Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer that is often diagnosed in its late stages and responds poorly to treatment. Family members exposed to workers with heavy asbestos exposure may subsequently contract mesothelioma.

Lung Cancer

At least one study has found an increase in lung cancer incidence in family members with secondary asbestos exposure.


Asbestos is scarring of the lungs. It is a painful condition that causes chest pain and shortness of breath.

Pleural Plaques

Pleural plaques are thickened areas that form on the pleural membranes. Severe cases are known as diffuse pleural thickening and may lead to symptoms such as shortness of breath.

Is Secondary Asbestos Exposure Still a Threat?

Family members may still be exposed to asbestos today if they live with a worker exposed to products containing asbestos on the job, particularly if the workplace fails to follow OSHA standards for safe asbestos handling practices. However, the family members most at risk are those who lived with workers who experienced heavy occupational asbestos exposure decades ago. 

Although asbestos use has largely been phased out, the threat of deadly illnesses for those who lived with asbestos-exposed workers lives on. Even if decades have passed since your exposure, it is possible to be diagnosed with mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis today.

Is Secondary Asbestos Exposure Still a Threat
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