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What Is Secondary Exposure to Asbestos and How Can You Prevent It?

By Safeopedia Staff
Published: September 8, 2021
Key Takeaways

Asbestos can affect more than just the workers who are directly exposed to it - their loved ones are at risk, too.

Caption: Worker leaving the job site Source: dusanpetkovic / iStock

Asbestos exposure doesn't always end at work. Unfortunately, whenever an employee is at risk of exposure, so are their loved ones.

That's because of a phenomenon known as secondary asbestos exposure.

It starts with the presence of asbestos fibers in the workplace - the primary exposure. Those fibers can adhere to a worker's hair, skin, or clothes. From there, they can be shed in their car or their home, potentially putting others at risk, including children.

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Thankfully, there are steps employers and workers can take to mitigate this risk and keep everyone safe - in and out of the workplace. And it all starts by understanding what secondary asbestos exposure is and how it happens.

Where Is Asbestos Found in the Workplace?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was used in construction and manufacturing until 1980.

Despite being discontinued, many occupations continue to deal with it since it was in widespread use and is found in a number of common materials. It is especially prevalent in construction or demolition sites, shipyards, and wherever workers are disturbing old homes or buildings.

Other professions that are at risk of asbestos exposure include:

  • Firefighters and other first responders can be exposed to asbestos when running into demolished or damaged buildings
  • Tradesmen who work on HVAC, electrical, and plumbing can be exposed to asbestos through old fixtures and gaskets that may have been made with the mineral
  • Auto mechanics can be exposed through old brake pads and other car parts that were made with it

(Learn more about Shipyards and Asbestos)

Why Is Asbestos Dangerous?

Exposure to asbestos can lead to the development of mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer.

Unfortunately, repeat secondary exposure to asbestos can also cause mesothelioma. This means that anyone who carpools, rides, or lives with someone who works with asbestos-containing materials is also at risk.

Tragically, most cases of secondary exposure occur in women and children living with blue collar workers who come in contact with asbestos at work.

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(Find out How to Reduce the Risk of Occupational Cancer)

How Does Secondary Asbestos Exposure Happen?

Secondary exposure occurs when disturbed asbestos sticks to worker's skin, clothes, or hair and is carried home, where family members can be exposed to it. These are some of the potential points of secondary exposure:

  • A worker with asbestos on their clothes or skin can then shed it in their car while driving - anyone who subsequently rides in that car is at risk of exposure
  • Asbestos can enter the home where it can be deposited on furniture or spread in the air
  • Handling or washing clothing that has been contaminated with asbestos can also cause secondary exposure
  • Personal contact is the most direct form of secondary exposure. It's easy to inhale asbestos while hugging or touching someone who has been exposed to it

How Can I Mitigate the Risks?

Employees who work with asbestos should be provided with everything they need to undergo a thorough decontamination process. This includes:

  • Lockers where they can store their work clothes and equipment instead of taking them home
  • Shower facilities to wash off after work and remove any minerals that may have clung to the worker's skin or hair
  • A dedicated area to store their street clothes and ensure that they don't get contaminated from being left on the work site

With these measures, the chances of secondary exposure go down. However, it remains a pressing concern. Workers can still track home trace amounts of asbestos and repeated exposure can harm the ones they live with.

This is all the more reason to take these measures seriously. Employers should take every precaution to minimize the likelihood that workers are carrying asbestos particles home.

What Should I Do if I Think I've Been Exposed?

The symptoms of mesothelioma can appear anywhere from 10 to 50 years after exposure. Even then, they can start off fairly mild. This long latency period can make it challenging to diagnose mesothelioma, especially since the early symptoms can mimic those of more common illnesses.

If you or a loved one shows symptoms of mesothelioma and may have been exposed, talk to your doctor about getting some scans. A biopsy is the only way to diagnose mesothelioma; however, a full workup is important because the symptoms could be pointing to any number of other possible conditions.

After a diagnosis, there are a few treatment options. As with many types of cancer, this can involve radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, or experimental treatments. Many people opt for a multi-modal approach.

Ultimately, secondary exposure is a risk for anyone who lives with someone who works in an industry where asbestos is a hazard. Because of this, it’s important to diligently follow a thorough decontamination process and ensure that asbestos-containing materials stay on the job site.

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Written by Safeopedia Staff

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At Safeopedia, we think safety professionals are unsung superheroes in many workplaces. We aim to support and celebrate these professionals and the work they do by providing easy access to occupational health and safety information, and by reinforcing safe work practices.

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