One in Five People With Asbestos Illness Were Not Exposed at Work, They Lived With Someone Who Was

People who once worked with asbestos are at the highest risk of developing debilitating asbestos-related diseases. However, other people—people who have never worked in construction, the automotive industry, or mining—could still face danger if they lived with or spent significant time around someone who did.

A Brief History of Asbestos 

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that comes in six different forms. For hundreds of years, people around the world considered asbestos a “miraculous” material, capable of withstanding wear, fire, and war. While asbestos was once a rarity among Medieval Europeans, common people—having heard stories of fireproof tablecloths and garments—once believed that asbestos was shorn from the wool of mystical and vicious salamanders. 

Asbestos and the Industrial Revolution

Although people have sought out, mined, and traded asbestos since the beginnings of recorded history, demand skyrocketed in the early 20th century. For over 100 years, American industry thrived off asbestos, using it to strengthen, fortify, and insulate everything from automotive parts to roof shingles and wall paint.

Scientists began to realize the dangers of asbestos in the 1920s. However, asbestos companies spent millions of dollars trying to convince the public that its products were safe, even when they knew otherwise. 

Second-Hand Asbestos Exposure 

An estimated 30 million American workers were exposed to hazardous amounts of asbestos between the 1940s and late 1970s. However, not all asbestos exposures are the same: 

Primary Exposure

  • Primary Exposure, or occupational exposure, which affects people who worked directly with asbestos or asbestos-contaminated products. Primary asbestos exposure was common among blue-collar workers employed in many different labor positions. 

Secondary Exposure

  • Secondary Exposure, sometimes referred to as “take-home exposure” or “second-hand asbestos exposure,” which affects people who lived with asbestos workers. 

Since gender roles once precluded most women from performing manual or heavy labor, asbestos workers were usually men, while the people most likely to be exposed to second-hand asbestos were their wives and children. 

In total, some 100 million people across the United States may have been exposed to asbestos, whether at work or in their own home. 

How Second-Hand Asbestos Exposure Happens 

Asbestos fibers are microscopic and can be smaller in width than a human hair. However, they have a rough texture and jagged composition. If asbestos goes airborne, it can easily stick to skin and clothing. 

Before the dangers of asbestos became public knowledge, people who worked with asbestos-contaminated products did not know they needed to be cautious when they came home from work. They would often track asbestos dust into their vehicle and into their homes, putting entire families at risk. 

How One Montana Town Exemplifies the Risks of Secondary Asbestos

Medical researchers, doctors, and epidemiologists have spent decades investigating the deadly toll asbestos took on the town of Libby, Montana. 

Libby, Montana and the Vermiculite Mine

For nearly 70 years, the W.R. Grace Company operated a large vermiculite mine, employing hundreds of local people. Vermiculite is a mineral that is used to aerate soil while retaining nutrients. Vermiculite is useful, but is often contaminated with harmful asbestos minerals as well. 

In the case of Libby, Montana and the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine, many of that company’s mine workers experienced direct occupational exposure, working with vermiculite that contained up to 26% amphibole asbestos. Amphibole asbestos is made of tiny straight, needle-like fibers that are easily inhaled and embed in the skin, causing health problems decades later.

However, workers were not the only ones affected by asbestos. One Libby-based research study explored environmental asbestos exposure and the prevalence of asbestos-related illnesses among individuals who never worked at or with the W.R. Grace Company. 

Researchers found that, between 1979 and 2011, 694 Libby residents passed away from asbestos-related diseases. 

However, of those nearly 700 deaths, only about 87 ever worked with W.R. Grace Company. 

A significant sub-section of asbestos-related deaths were women, many of whom likely lived with or around miners. 

Today, at least 1 out of every 10 Libby residents has been diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses, including deadly cancers like mesothelioma.

The Risks of Secondary Asbestos Exposure 

Second-hand asbestos exposure is not as common today as it was throughout much of the 20th century. However, take-home asbestos exposure still presents a serious health hazard—one that could affect millions of Americans. In fact, studies of asbestos-related diseases have found that 1 in 5 diagnoses can be traced back to household exposure. 

Diseases Connected to Asbestos Exposure 

Common conditions attributed to second-hand asbestos exposure include but are not limited to:


  • Asbestosis is a scarring of the lungs caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. 

Pleural Disease

  • Pleural disease is a non-cancerous lung condition that affects the membranes of the lung and chest, making it more difficult to breathe. 


  • Mesothelioma, a set of cancers that affects the tissue surrounding most of the body’s major internal organs. People who inhale asbestos are most likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma of the lung, or pleural mesothelioma. 


  • Cancers of various organs in the digestive and respiratory systems, including lung cancer, have been connected to asbestos exposure. People who have both a history of cigarette smoking and exposure to asbestos are one of the highest-risk groups for lung cancer. 

Since mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses have latency periods that can exceed 50 years from the first asbestos exposure, many people who encountered asbestos never realize they were exposed until they develop respiratory problems later in life.

You Could Get Compensation for Your Asbestos Injuries 

If you, or a loved one, have been injured by asbestos at home or at work, you could be entitled to significant compensation. 

Under U.S. law, every person and every company has a legal duty to avoid unnecessarily harming anyone else. This is called the “duty of care.” When someone has a duty of care, they must warn people about the possible dangers inherent to a place or product. 

When someone violates the duty of care by putting employees and their families at risk, they could be considered negligent. 

If a company is negligent, it could be held accountable for any resulting damages in a civil court. 

The asbestos industry knew for decades that its products were associated with deadly diseases like mesothelioma. But they did not tell workers, families, and the American public that asbestos can kill. 

Instead of warning people, the asbestos industry shut down scientific studies and then hid the results. 

In the past several decades, people have filed civil lawsuits against the asbestos company, winning hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation—money that can use to pay off their medical bills, replace lost income, or cover the costs of a loved one’s funeral. 

In fact, the asbestos industry has hedged its losses by setting up trust funds for its victims. 

People who had to inhale asbestos fibers because a loved one strove to make an honest living are victims, too, and entitled to relief for their damages and losses.



If you may have been exposed to asbestos, speak with your healthcare provider about tests and screening to help detect the presence of asbestos fibers and asbestos-related damage.

AsbestosClaims.Law is your comprehensive resource for all things asbestos. We hope this information is helpful.

If you have any additional questions or concerns related to asbestos, check out our website and Youtube page for videos, infographics and answers to your questions about asbestos, including health and safety, asbestos testing, removing asbestos from your home and building, and legal information about compensation for asbestos injuries.

And if you believe that you were exposed to asbestos, or have been diagnosed with an asbestos illness, you could be entitled to significant compensation—money you could use to cover the costs of asbestos removal services, pay for medical treatment, and preemptively protect your physical well-being. 

All without filing a lawsuit.

If you’d like help with filing a claim, please get in touch by email at [email protected], or call or text us at (206) 455-9190. We’ll listen to your story and explain your options. And we never charge for anything unless you receive money in your pocket.