Secondary Asbestos Exposure and Mesothelioma

Secondary exposure to asbestos is usually the result of interaction among friends and family members. It happens after one person is exposed during their job and brings loose asbestos fibers into their home. Secondary asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma.


Written by Jenna Campagna, RN


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Explaining How Secondary Exposure to Asbestos Occurs

Secondary exposure has a variety of names. These terms refer to asbestos exposure occurring outside of the work setting.

Other names for secondary exposure include:

  • Secondhand asbestos exposure
  • Domestic asbestos exposure
  • Household asbestos exposure
  • Asbestos exposure at home
  • Non-occupational asbestos exposure
  • Indirect asbestos exposure
  • Take-home asbestos exposure

Secondary exposure and occupational asbestos exposure aren’t exclusive. Asbestos is a naturally forming mineral that is relevant in construction, insulation and electrical jobs. Secondhand vulnerability to this cancerous material often occurs due to work-related exposure.

Examples of Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Secondary exposure usually takes place in homes, between family members and friends. Blue-collar workers during the 20th century unknowingly brought asbestos home with them after work shifts. The presence of asbestos on their hair, clothes or work equipment exposed women and children to the cancerous mineral.

From the early 20th century until the 1980s, few people knew asbestos was dangerous. Many workers didn’t even know what asbestos was, or that it was present in their workspaces.

Since asbestos fibers are minuscule in size, they’re undetectable without a microscope or trained eye. Workers had no awareness they were bringing sharp fibers into their home. 

A few regular examples of asbestos exposure at home include:

  • Hugging a loved one
  • Doing laundry
  • Hand-washing clothes
  • Sitting or laying on furniture
  • Using household appliances or other home features

Hugging Your Loved One

Hugging is a loving, seemingly harmless act. Yet, it was likely the habitual means of asbestos exposure at home

A hug is the most direct way to transfer sharp asbestos particles from one person to another. Workers returned home from the day with their clothes covered in asbestos. Their wife, kids or parents hugged them without knowing the risk.

Doing Laundry and Hand-Washing Clothes

In prior decades, most American families followed conventional gender roles. Men worked blue-collar trade jobs like construction and electrical work. Women and female children handled a large portion of household chores, such as laundry and hand-washing clothes. Wives, mothers and children were in contact with work clothes covered in asbestos fibers.

Loose asbestos particles are weightless, which is why disturbance can detach them from the clothing. The strands also can float in the air, sometimes close to our mouths and noses. These fibers were swallowed or inhaled unknowingly by the family member handling the clothes.

Sharing a Vehicle

A simple act like sharing a vehicle can even transport asbestos fibers from one person to another. Friends and family members rode in cars and trucks together after one spent a work shift collecting asbestos dust on their clothes, hair and skin. They’d spend minutes or hours in a confined space within feet of one another.

Work colleagues also exposed each other to asbestos in a vehicle. They rode together for lunch break or in a carpool to and from work.

Using Furniture, Appliances and Other Home Features

Almost all, if not all, American workers were unaware that they brought asbestos into their homes. They’d sit on couches, use appliances and touch countertops without giving any of these acts a second thought.

If any fibers passed from the worker to these surfaces or objects, then the entire family was living in an exposure area. Wives, parents and children sat on the same couches, used the same appliances and touched the same countertops minutes or hours later.

People Affected by Secondary Exposure to Asbestos

Around 75% of mesothelioma victims are male, largely due to the risk of on-the-job asbestos exposure. Most cases of mesothelioma involve men who had specific jobs, ones requiring them to handle asbestos directly or work near an item that included the material.

For secondary exposure, the gender disparity is the opposite. Secondhand exposure is heavily linked to mesothelioma cases involving women and young adults.

According to one study cited in Translational Oncology, women comprise 87.5% of mesothelioma cases caused by non-occupational exposure to asbestos.

According to a different study, published in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health:

  • 33 out of 35 mesothelioma cases from secondary exposure involved women
  • Wives accounted for 22 of the 35 cases, followed by daughters (9), mothers (2) and sons (2)
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How Often Is Secondary Exposure the Cause of Mesothelioma?

The most common cause of mesothelioma is occupational exposure to asbestos. This method accounts for between 80% and 90% of mesothelioma cases, according to numerous reports. Secondary exposure is the cause of around 10-15% of cases.

According to scientific sources, secondary exposure is more likely than occupational exposure to result in peritoneal mesothelioma. Translational Oncology’s report links secondhand exposure to this form of the cancer:

  • The report states that around 52% of non-occupational exposure cases are peritoneal mesothelioma.
  • The other 48% develop pleural mesothelioma.
  • By comparison, 90% of cases involving work-related exposure are pleural mesothelioma.

Pleural mesothelioma makes up 80% of all cases of this cancer, and peritoneal mesothelioma accounts for most of the remaining 20%.

Fortunately for victims of secondary asbestos exposure, their survival length with mesothelioma is usually better than occupational exposure cases. In a study cited in Translational Oncology:

  • Non-occupational exposure cases had a median survival time of 53 months.
  • Work-related exposure cases had a median survival length of 19 months.

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About the Writer, Jenna Campagna, RN

Jenna Campagna is a registered nurse and patient advocate who is passionate about helping mesothelioma patients navigate their health care. She has over seven years of experience working with patients diagnosed with rare diseases including mesothelioma. Jenna is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators and her goal is to connect patients to top mesothelioma specialists, treatment facilities, and clinical trials. Through her writing, she aims to simplify the complicated journey through mesothelioma by offering helpful tips and advice.