A non-occupational exposure to asbestos – where a claimant was not employed in an industry where asbestos was being used in production, manufacture or construction – can often be traced to one or more likely sources caused by ‘environmental’ or ‘secondary’ exposure.

In a case of environmental exposure, a claimant would need to show that they came into contact with asbestos used to insulate various parts of a premises where they normally worked. Alternatively, an employee may have been exposed to airborne dust caused by building renovations, which disturbed asbestos materials. In cases of secondary exposure, which almost always involves female victims, a wife – and sometimes a daughter too – would be exposed to asbestos dust in the family home.

Return home covered in the deadly fibres

A lack of showering facilities and the widespread absence of asbestos awareness to the long term health dangers in the British workplace meant it was common practice for husbands to return home at the end of each day in their workclothes or overalls covered in the deadly fibres. Wives would breathe in the airborne fibres while vigorously “shaking out the dust” from the contaminated clothing before also washing the items by hand. Dust would also be brushed off from work boots and combed out from the husband’s hair.

Secondary exposure is also named alongside environmental exposure to have caused the deaths of around 1,200 female mesothelioma victims since 2008. Earlier research has also found there has been a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970.

Secondary asbestos exposure during the peak period of Britain’s asbestos use during the 1950s, 60s and 70s can still lead to innocent female victims to be diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer or an asbestosis disease up to 50 or more years later. Unfortunately, a coroner may record the cause of death simply as an “industrial disease” and it can be left to the family or the doctor to follow up on their suspicions of asbestos exposure.

Work clothes only washed once every couple of weeks

In one example, a more detailed investigation of an East Lincolnshire women diagnosed with mesothelioma in her mid-60s found that, prior to her death, she had mentioned in a statement that her husband’s work clothes were only washed once every couple of weeks, which were described as “filthy” with dust.

Fewer households possessed their own washing machine at this time, so the overalls would be taken to the parent’s home to be thoroughly washed. Before washing a yard brush would often be used to remove the most ingrained fibres from the contaminated clothing. The statement also adds that the wife used to travel in the same car while her husband was wearing his overalls.

In a second mesothelioma claim, the husband worked as an assembler at a Merseyside electric cooker company during the early 1970s, which involved installing asbestos insulation by hand to line the inside of the cookers. The boiler suit worn at the factory was allowed to be brought home every day to be washed.

It was shown that the husband’s overalls were covered in white asbestos dust, which were first shaken in the garden to remove the dust before placing in the washing machine. Further medical evidence was able to also show that exposure to asbestos within the family home had “materially contributed” to the risk of developing the fatal disease.

Sleep with asbestos dust in the hair

Another typical case of secondary exposure involved the 86 year old wife of a power station worker employed between 1955 and 1970 to work in a boiler room where asbestos was commonly used for lining boilers, lagging pipes and insulating electrical systems. Every day for around ten years, the wife regularly washed her husband’s overalls.

In addition, the lack of a bath or shower in the home meant the husband would routinely go straight to sleep after a long shift still covered with asbestos dust in his hair. Further asbestos dust would be released in to the air when the bedding was shaken out by the wife.

Cases which pursue mesothelioma compensation for secondary exposure have traditionally been more difficult simply because the sufferer has not been directly exposed to asbestos at the defendant’s workplace. Employers can be reluctant to accept liability for any negligence, which indirectly led to the secondary exposure to asbestos fibres.

Employer should have been aware it was foreseeable

There can also be significant challenges attached in proving that secondary exposure materially contributed to a later confirmed diagnosis of mesothelioma after the first UK asbestos ban in 1965. While the most dangerous blue and brown asbestos types were no longer used after this time in the production of insulation products, and British imports of asbestos reduced significantly from the 1980s, the use of white asbestos was allowed to be continued for a further 15 years.

Nevertheless, it is established in law that wives, daughter or other family members who fall victim to mesothelioma can succeed in claims where they are able to show that an employer should have been aware it was foreseeable that an employee would go home with asbestos dust on their overalls or work clothing.