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Mesothelioma Risk in the Families of Asbestos-Exposed Workers

A new Italian study is a sobering reminder that living with someone who has worked around asbestos can have fatal consequences.

Researchers examined the cases of 33 women and 2 men with malignant mesothelioma whose only known exposure to asbestos was through a family member – usually a husband or father – with a history of occupational asbestos exposure.

Like asbestos-exposed workers, these family members were found to have a higher risk for pleural mesothelioma, although the framework through which they could seek compensation for their illness is less clear.

When Mundane Tasks Become Deadly

Asbestos, a naturally-occurring fibrous mineral, was once added to all kinds of construction products to increase strength and heat resistance. Before the link between asbestos and mesothelioma was established in the first half of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of homes, public buildings, and even ships were constructed using the material.

In many cases, people who mined and processed asbestos for these uses, and those who worked with the asbestos-containing products, not only inhaled deadly asbestos at work but also unknowingly brought some of the innocuous-looking white dust home on their clothes and equipment.

Touching that equipment, laundering those work clothes, or even giving the wearer a welcome-home hug could result in a mesothelioma diagnosis decades later.

Mesothelioma and Household Exposure

The University of Trieste study utilized data from an Italian cancer registry of 1,063 mesothelioma cases diagnosed between 1995 and 2014. Information about asbestos exposure and demographic data came from a standardized questionnaire or interview.

Of the 33 mesothelioma patients who were exposed to asbestos through a family member, 22 were workers’ wives. Nine of the victims were daughters, two were sons, and two mesothelioma cases occurred in mothers of asbestos-exposed workers.

It took an average of 59 years for these family members to begin showing signs of mesothelioma, although the wives tended to develop mesothelioma much sooner than the children. Most contracted the epithelial form of the disease and the average survival time was 16 months.

“Our data confirms that household exposure increases the risk for pleural mesothelioma amongst women with no history of occupational asbestos exposure,” writes study author Flavia  D’Agostin. “This is an ongoing problem in in many countries, as well as in Italy, where the evaluation of a framework for the compensation of these cases is under debate.”  

Whereas workers with mesothelioma are often able to sue negligent employers for compensation, the same is not always true of exposed family members who may have a harder time proving who is to blame for their mesothelioma.

The study appears in a recent issue of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.


D’Agostin, F, et al, “Pleural mesothelioma in household members of asbestos-exposed workers in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy”, May 8, 2017, International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, pp. 419-431

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