Secondary Asbestos Exposure
Direct exposure to asbestos in the workplace has long been recognized as a dangerous health hazard. Recently, however, the medical profession has begun to realize that those who did not work directly with the dangerous substance could also be affected by asbestos-caused diseases.
More and more cases of so-called secondary asbestos exposure - or second-hand asbestos exposure - have been cropping up throughout the world; enough so that doctors are beginning to recognize it as a serious concern.
Secondary Exposure at Home
Secondary exposure to asbestos occurs among those who are exposed to dangerous asbestos fibers but not as a direct result of working with the material itself. Most often, such cases involve women or children who inhaled asbestos fibers that were brought home on the clothing of someone who did have direct daily contact with the material, such as a spouse, father, grandfather, or brother.
For example, many recently discovered cases of second-hand exposure include wives and children of World War II shipyard workers who were exposed to large amounts of damaged or "friable' asbestos while on the job. The men may also have hammered, sanded, sawed, or otherwise manipulated the asbestos so that it gave off large amounts of dust.
After a long day spent working with the material, the men would often return home wearing dusty overalls and shoes and perhaps even have asbestos fibers in their hair or on other parts of their body. Upon coming home from work, children would heartily great Dad or Grandpa - climbing on his lap, wrestling with him - without giving any second thought to the fact that they may be inhaling the hazardous substance that traveled home with him on his clothes or body.
Many lawsuits have also been filed by women who were sickened by washing their husband's/father's contaminated overalls on a daily basis. Interviews with these victims reveal the fact that they would usually "shake out" the overalls before washing them, therefore creating even more airborne fibers. The constant inhalation of the fibers resulted in the development of asbestos-caused diseases years later.
Though the number of recent cases of secondary exposure has certainly seemed to take the medical community by surprise, a study conducted back in 1966 demonstrated that more than 50% of the cases of mesothelioma in women were as a result of household exposure to someone who worked directly with asbestos.
Secondary Exposure in Your Community
Another common way to develop mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases is by living within close proximity of an asbestos mine or a company that manufactures asbestos or asbestos-containing products.
In one case in particular, an entire small town has been devastated by asbestos-caused illnesses brought on by the presence of a vermiculite mine in that particular location. The town of Libby, Montana was home to the now-defunct W.R. Grace vermiculite mine. The vermiculite, which was contaminated with asbestos, was used for Grace's Zonolite insulation product. Though the mine has been closed since 1991, hundreds in this little town of 12,000 have been sickened with asbestosis and mesothelioma and more than 200 have already died. Though Grace knew about the dangers of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite, residents of Libby were encouraged to use it on their lawns, on Little League playing fields and playgrounds, and a number of other places that caused widespread contamination.
Other such cases, not all as dramatic, are evident in towns where asbestos is mined and produced. Those who lived near refineries, power plants, shipyards, rail yards, or steel mills may have suffered exposure to asbestos as well.
Preventing Secondary Exposure
During the years when the use of asbestos was at its highest, much could have been done to prevent both primary and secondary exposure. Unfortunately, precautions were rarely taken. Providing employees who worked with asbestos with showers and requiring them to change clothes before heading home may have resulted in far less cases of the disease decades later. Even though employers usually knew about the dangers of asbestos and the dust it produces, it was rare that anything was done to protect the employees or their loved ones.
The same can be said for companies that mined or manufactured asbestos or produced products made with or from asbestos. Little if anything was done to protect the environment from asbestos contamination, so air and water supplies were often affected.
Options for Victims of Secondary Asbestos Exposure
If you believe you may have suffered second-hand exposure to asbestos, it's essential to inform your doctor should you begin experiencing symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pains, or cough. While those symptoms could be a sign of something much less serious, any degree of exposure means that asbestos-related diseases are potentially in your future.
Victims of secondary exposure also have legal rights to compensation for medical expenses and suffering. If an asbestos-related disease diagnosis is confirmed, you may want to consider obtaining legal representation.
Last modified: December 28, 2010.