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Could asbestos have reached you through secondary exposure?

View profile for Catriona Ralls
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The now banned use of asbestos in property and industry has led to thousands of fatalities over recent decades.  According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2015 there were 2,542 deaths from mesothelioma, an incurable lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.  2,135 of those who died were male and 407 were female, with a rising number of cases caused by secondary exposure accounting for a large proportion of the female deaths.  Catriona Ralls, Industrial Illness Solicitor, explains here how this happens and the signs people should look for if they are concerned.

“Dad’s overalls”

Secondary exposure to asbestos is generally caused by washing the work clothes of those who have been directly exposed.  Due to the increase in cases, this has now developed its own terminology, ‘Dad’s Overalls’.  “Those who have been more at risk of secondary exposure tend to be the wives and children who wash their husband’s or father’s clothes after work,” begins Catriona. "By bringing the particles into the home, there is also the chance they land on furniture and floors exposing the whole family to the dangers of the material.  While asbestos was widely used there are certain industries who would have been more susceptible to exposure, such as those in the construction or shipyard industries.”

Several cases last year brought to light the devastating effect of secondary exposure to asbestos.  Most recently Janet Sibley, who passed away in 2016 from mesothelioma. “Janet Sibley was exposed to asbestos whilst washing clothes for both her father and her husband,” Catriona explains. “Her father worked on the docks during the 1960s and her husband was employed at a chemical plant. It is cases like this that reinforce why asbestos was banned, and the importance for employers to continue to take responsibility where there may still be asbestos present in their premises. It is important to remember that asbestos only poses a threat when it is disturbed, so any employer who knows about asbestos must carry out regular risk assessments of the hazard and act accordingly for the wellbeing of not only their employees but also their families.”

Signs of secondary exposure

There were 2,542 mesothelioma deaths in Great Britain in 2015, a similar number to the previous three years.  “Projections claim that there will continue to be approximately 2,500 deaths a year until 2020,” continues Catriona.  “Mesothelioma takes between 20-40 years for symptoms to develop and so it’s expected that by the end of this decade numbers will begin to decline in line with when the use of asbestos was abolished and so exposure was not as prevalent. If you are concerned that you may have been exposed to asbestos, either directly or indirectly, you must be vigilant about your medical attention.”

Symptoms of mesothelioma include pain in the lower back or shoulder, coughing and shortness of breath, fever and fatigue. “These symptoms could be mistaken for a number of different ailments, so if these occur the person should see their GP as soon as possible, particularly if they suspect a link with asbestos,” explains Catriona. “Their symptoms will then be on their medical records and if they are diagnosed with mesothelioma at a stage later in the future this will be integral to establishing the timeline for exposure to asbestos.”

Catriona concludes, “Unfortunately, there is no cure for mesothelioma, and if you are faced with a diagnosis you will no doubt have numerous questions about the future security of your family and your continuing care. We can answer those questions, help you claim financial compensation and put you in touch with the appropriate medical professionals to support you and your family through this emotional time.”

If you have questions about mesothelioma or exposure to asbestos you can contact Catriona or the Industrial Illness team on 0800 91 92 30, visit their section of the website here or email    


This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.