Secondary exposure to asbestos, equally a deadly health threat, occurs where a spouse or members of the same family are also at high risk of contracting mesothelioma or other asbestosis diseases because the asbestos fibres have been brought home on boiler suits, work clothes, footwear and even in the hair.
In nearly all secondary exposure cases, a wife would have been directly exposed when regularly washing the contaminated clothing over the same period her husband was employed at the workplace where asbestos was being used.
A recent case, in which the daughter of a dockyard worker was awarded ‘substantial’ mesothelioma compensation by the Ministry of Defence, once again spotlights the appalling legacy of asbestos use throughout UK industry in the twentieth century.
The 65 year old woman would regularly wash the asbestos-contaminated workclothes of not only her father but also her brother and husband who worked in the Plymouth dockyards, a well known area for higher than average incidence of asbestos–related disease where around 30 mesothelioma cases are confirmed each year.
The extensive use of asbestos material as an inexpensive insulating material in nearly every aspect of ship construction, most visibly seen in pipe lagging, boiler linings and equipment housing, occurred in the many dockyards around the UK up until asbestos use was banned from the 1980s onwards.
Too often, there would be a lack of information and asbestos awareness of the longterm health dangers from the breathing in of asbestos fibre dust particles, which stay permanently lodged in the linings of the lungs. The unusually long gestation period of asbestos disease means that victims would often not see or even recognise the first signs of mesothelioma or asbestosis symptoms, which can occur up to 50 years later.
Despite repeated secondary exposure to asbestos in her early 20s, when the daughter took over clothes washing duties from her ill mother, a confirmed diagnosis only came forty years later.
However, in law, it is established that family members who contract asbestos-related disease 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 employees would go home with asbestos on their clothes, even when it took them longer to realise that family members of workers exposed to asbestos were also at risk.
After the early 1990s, new cases of asbestosis rose to 800 and deaths from mesothelioma had exceeded 2,250 by 2008, according to figures released by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2009. Currently, around 4,000 deaths per year are recorded, which are forecast to rise to nearly 60,000 by 2050.