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Secondhand Exposure to Asbestos and Mesothelioma

Most of the time, asbestos exposure and mesothelioma are linked to occupational hazards. However, others outside of the occupational realm can be exposed to asbestos. Primary and secondary exposure to asbestos can increase your chances of developing mesothelioma. “Take-home” asbestos exposure or secondary asbestos exposure can bring asbestos fibers into the home. It is similar to the risks associated with “secondhand smoke.” The toxic fibers cling on to clothing, skin, hair, and other belongings. The fibers are impossible to the naked eye, so it is not clear when the fibers may be attached to you or anything intimately attached. 

Secondhand asbestos exposure was first documented in the 1960s. Asbestos fibers can travel into your home, increasing anyone living there, such as family be at risk for secondary exposure. Asbestos is the leading cause of the rare, but fatal cancer, mesothelioma. Another form of secondhand exposure that has been getting a great deal of attention lately is exposure in household products. Asbestos has been found in products like Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder (Talcum Powder). Secondhand exposure to asbestos accounts for 20% of mesothelioma diagnoses. 

Secondhand Exposure to Asbestos Today

Women and children have proven to be the most susceptible to secondhand exposure. Secondhand asbestos is commonly referred to as secondary asbestos, indirect asbestos, domestic exposure, or household exposure. The terms can be used interchangeably with the same meaning. Today, secondhand exposure to asbestos is less common because many employers must comply with the regulations set forth by The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). It is typically known as “industrial hygiene,” some employers require employees to change clothes before leaving work and take showers to remove any potential contaminants. However, cases may start to surface where the initial exposure was several decades ago. 

Secondhand Asbestos Exposure and Contact with Others 

Secondhand asbestos is most often caused by contact with others. This could be hugging a friend that has asbestos-fibers on their clothing or skin. Family members from many decades ago experienced prolonged domestic exposure to asbestos, which would cause the toxic fibers to enter and embed themselves in the lungs. Workers would come home after each shift covered in asbestos-laced dust. The fibers could easily cling onto furniture and other items in the house. Many companies were not worried about the safety of their employees. The repeated exposure increased the risk of developing mesothelioma or any other asbestos-related disease. 

Secondhand Asbestos Exposure to Contaminated Items and Skin 

Items that can be considered “contaminated” include any belongings from a person who has been exposed to asbestos. Again, this is more common for individuals who work in certain occupations where asbestos exposure is more prevalent. Here are a few common contaminated items where the asbestos toxins may be found:

  • Items from workers regularly exposed to asbestos
  • Clothing – asbestos fibers cling on to clothing and become trapped within the fibers. Secondary exposure here is when a family member touches the contaminated item or comes into contact with the item while doing laundry or folding clothes 
  • Tools 
  • Work or personal vehicle 

Asbestos fibers can also be tangled in one’s hair. This can contaminate other items such as a comb or brush. It is important, even today, to be mindful of how you or a loved one could be exposed either directly or indirectly to asbestos. 

Secondhand Asbestos Exposure and Natural Disaster Cleanup

After a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or other significant event, a homeowner may have to clean up and repair their house. Clean up after a disaster can pose a number of health hazards, especially to asbestos. Asbestos can be found in drywall, popcorn ceiling materials, pipes, insulation, and many other materials that you may not suspect. The inhalation of asbestos fibers that become airborne from demolition can cause significant health risks. During debris removal, The National Institution of Health recommends the following to prevent any secondhand exposure to asbestos: 

“[k]eep all family members out of the work area, or seal the area. Do not carry contaminated clothing or other materials home to your family members. Place the contaminated clothing with the asbestos waste into contractor grade plastic bags. Bag it again; seal and label the bag. Avoid smoking, eating, or drinking in asbestos-contaminated areas.”

Always be mindful of the potential risks of secondhand exposure to asbestos. Respirators and masks can help prevent or significantly limit one’s exposure to the toxin. 

Impact of nonoccupational or “Domestic Exposure” to asbestos

While it is more likely to develop mesothelioma from primary exposure to asbestos, studies have shown that minimal exposure can increase health risks. Minimal exposure can cause damage to the lungs and lead to the development of mesothelioma. According to the American Cancer Society, “[t]here is also an increased risk of mesothelioma among family members of workers and people living in neighborhoods near asbestos factories and mines. Although the risk of mesothelioma increases with the amount of asbestos exposure, there is no clear safe level of asbestos exposure in terms of mesothelioma risk.”

The risk of contracting mesothelioma is a lifelong risk. There is no distinctive method to determine if you will develop mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos. The odds can be predicted based on your occupational or nonoccupational exposure levels, but even limited exposure can lead to a diagnosis of the deadly cancer. 

According to a study, “[n]onoccupational exposure to asbestos may explain approximately 20% of the mesotheliomas in industrialized countries, but it is does not seem possible to estimate the number of lung cancers caused by these circumstances of exposure.” Confirming a mesothelioma diagnosis from suspected secondhand exposure is a more challenging process for health professionals. It is usually more difficult to link the actual direct or indirect exposure and the disease. The diagnostic process is also challenging because mesothelioma is historically more diagnosed in men than women. Patients who experienced secondhand exposure to asbestos are most often diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, which is found in the lining of the lungs. 

Asbestos fibers are extremely dangerous, and they cannot be seen with the naked eye. The toxic fibers can be easily inhaled without your knowledge. It is important to be mindful of your surroundings on and off the job. If you have been indirectly exposed to asbestos and start to show symptoms of mesothelioma, a medical screening may be necessary. 

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