The recent death of a 86 year old woman from mesothelioma after fifteen years of cleaning the asbestos dust from her husband’s work clothes is another reminder of the many tragic cases of female ‘secondary’ exposure that still continue to this day.

Since 2008, both environmental and ‘secondary’ exposures to asbestos are thought to have been responsible for the deaths of around 1,200 women.

Researchers have explained the rise in the proportion of female exposure rates as the result of a steep reduction in male occupational exposure when the use of asbestos fibres as an insulating material began to slowly decline from the mid 80s onwards following the first UK ban in 1985.

Nevertheless, the total number of mesothelioma cases has risen in the UK by almost four-fold in the last thirty years since asbestos use was banned. Studies have also found that background “environmental” exposure rate has doubled, the majority of cases occurring in just the last ten years.

Widely used insulate industrial water heating systems

Currently a mesothelioma claim, which was begun by the late victim, is being continued by the son against the power company that employed the husband of his deceased mother. Between 1955 and 1970, the father worked in the boiler room at a power station supplying the Central Electricity Generating Board.

Asbestos fibres and cement were widely used to insulate water heating systems and pipework throughout British heavy industry, such as construction, engineering, shipbuilding, oil refineries and power generation plants. As a cheap source of durable and heat-resistant materials, asbestos imports into the UK increased from around 145,000 to more than 180,000 tonnes during the peak years of use from the 1950s to the late 1970s.

Despite significant, growing evidence of a link to asbestosis diseases caused by exposure and breathing in the fibre dust particles, asbestos awareness to the long term health risk was almost entirely absent from the workplace. Neither information nor protective equipment was provided and maintenance men simply worked with asbestos insulation materials every day in their own workclothes or overalls.

No bath / washing / showering facilities

In many workplaces, there were also no washing / showering facilities provided and the men would often return home at the end of a long shift still wearing their asbestos-contaminated work clothing and boots. The story of the former power station worker’s wife would then be repeated throughout many homes in Britain.

Typically, she would shake out her husband’s trousers and coat, which were covered in asbestos dust. As was also the case in many dwellings at the time, there was no bath or shower and the husband would often go to bed with asbestos dust still clinging to his body and hair. Every morning, his wife would shake out the bedding and breathe in the airborne asbestos dust before cleaning the sheets.

In some households, daughters would also wash and comb their father’s hair free of asbestos dust, and even clean asbestos-covered work boots. Entire families could be regularly exposed, especially if brothers also were employed at the same company and they too would bring back asbestos contaminated clothing or overalls.

Secondary exposure cases can sometimes be difficult

Mesothelioma compensation cases for secondary exposure can sometimes be more difficult to pursue simply because the victim has not been directly exposed to asbestos at the defendant’s workplace. A further issue is the period of up to 50 years or more that can elapse before asbestosis symptoms first appear.

While former employers can be reluctant to accept liability for any negligence, which indirectly led to secondary exposure to asbestos fibres, the wives and dependants who contract mesothelioma from secondary exposure can succeed in claims against the employer.

Claimants will need to show that the employers should have been aware it was foreseeable that their workforce would go home with asbestos on their clothes and often former work colleagues will be asked to provide testimony to the working conditions, including the absence of proper washing facilities.