Secondary exposure to asbestos continued to be a real danger, even after the decline in its use in the UK from the late 1970s and a first ban on the most toxic blue and brown fibre types in the mid-1980s. Use of white asbestos was only banned in 1999, less than twenty years ago. In a recent mesothelioma claim, a widow regularly washed her late husband’s boiler suit between 1985 and 1992, which she believes was responsible for causing her to contract mesothelioma, the terminal cancer of the lung linings.

Over the last ten years, “secondary” (and “environmental”) exposure have caused the deaths of around 1,200 female mesothelioma victims. Research has also found there has been a threefold increase in the overall female death-rate of those aged below 65 since 1970. The Health and Safety Executive estimate that there could as many as 400 female mesothelioma fatalities caused by asbestos exposure every year. With so many individual cases now increasingly reported, many are likely to have been caused by secondary exposure.

Always gave her husband a kiss and a hug while he was wearing his overalls

In the present tragic case, the female victim aged 72, describes how she “always gave her husband a kiss and a hug every morning before he left for work and again when he came home – while he was wearing his overalls.

Between 1985 and 1992 her husband worked as a shot-blaster at a Teesside company, which involves high pressure abrasion to remove surface coatings such as, paint, grease, tar, rust, dirt and scale. Her husband would also wear the boiler suit when he was sitting and having his tea at home after work and even in the garden. When the boiler suit became too dirty to wear, it would be left on a chair in the bedroom to be later washed.

Unfortunately, the husband passed away in April 2009 from lung cancer and a brain tumour, and now tragically, his widow has been diagnosed with mesothelioma. The victim is convinced that her only exposure to asbestos was through daily contact with her husband’s work clothes. However, in the absence of a witness statement about his exposure to asbestos whilst working at the shot-blasting company the widow is urgently appealing to any former work colleagues to provide accounts of working conditions at the time. The hope is that in the time remaining to her, she may be able to find answers and see justice served.

Usual practice for work clothes and boots to be brought home to be cleaned

Pursuing mesothelioma compensation for secondary exposure has traditionally been more difficult simply because the victim has not been directly exposed to asbestos at the defendant’s workplace. In addition, a period of usually 30 to 40 years can pass before the first symptoms of mesothelioma appear. Not unexpectedly, defendants can be reluctant to accept liability for any negligence, which indirectly led to the secondary exposure to asbestos fibres.

Throughout much of the 20th century, the lack of asbestos awareness to the long-term health risks of inhaling the fibre dust meant that it was the usual practice for contaminated work clothes and boots to be brought home to be cleaned, and often the hair would be covered in dust too. In many workplaces, there was simply no washing / showering facilities provided and often inadequate protective equipment or clothing.

The introduction of The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 – ten years prior to the period of time the widow’s husband started work at the shot-blasting company – placed a responsibility on all employers to minimise employees’ exposure to health and safety risks, and to provide information to other people about their workplace which might affect their health and safety. It is also established in law that family members can succeed in claims against a former employer where they are able to show that the employer should have been aware it was foreseeable that the workmen would go home with asbestos on their clothes.