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Secondary exposure to toxic asbestos has declined considerably in recent decades, but known cases of malignant mesothelioma caused by that type of asbestos exposure have continued to climb.
Increasing awareness of the rare cancer has led to the contrasting trends and an expected rise in personal injury lawsuits involving secondary asbestos exposure.
“One of the reasons is that we are getting better at diagnosing the disease,” attorney Daniel Wasserberg, who specializes in asbestos litigation, told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “Years ago, a woman with classic mesothelioma symptoms, but with no obvious exposure, might have had her diagnosis overlooked. Today, with the advances in science and medicine, doctors are more likely to figure out the diagnosis if it is, in fact, mesothelioma.”
Wasserberg, of the New York law firm Meirowitz & Wasserberg, was counsel in a recent case in Richland County, South Carolina, where a jury awarded $32 million in damages to Robert Weist, whose wife Kathy died of mesothelioma caused by the asbestos he inadvertently brought home on his clothes.
Jurors assigned liability to both Kraft Heinz Co., the premises owner, and Metal Masters Inc., the contractor that supplied the asbestos-containing materials used at the processing plant where Weist worked.
Secondary exposure is much less common today, but the lengthy latency period between exposure and diagnosis of mesothelioma can be 10 to 50 years, turning past exposure into future health problems.
Kathy Weist was just 62 years old when she died. Her husband, father and uncle all worked at various companies throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when asbestos use was prevalent. She never did.
“Younger people are being diagnosed now, and oftentimes the asbestos exposure was through the work of parents, uncles, stepparents or other loved ones bringing home the asbestos on their clothes,” Wasserberg said. “You don’t have to be working in a dusty plant all day to get mesothelioma. You can get it from a much lesser exposure. And we’re typically able to identify the source of the asbestos exposure.”
Industries today, where asbestos products are still used, are more heavily regulated and required to provide the necessary safeguards to prevent take-home exposure, mostly eliminating the threat. Contaminated work clothes must be laundered and equipment must be sanitized. Showers must be taken to prevent asbestos coming home on skin or hair.
It wasn’t that way through much of the 20th century, when men made up the majority of the industrial working class. They returned home carrying asbestos fibers on their clothes, skin and hair, indirectly exposing their families to the toxic substance.
Women who often did laundry and children who hugged their fathers or helped their mothers were unknowingly exposed to asbestos. Children from that era, now aging adults, are only now developing asbestos-related diseases that can be more accurately diagnosed through recent medical advances.
Without a known occupational history of exposure, doctors in the past rarely suspected or even looked for mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos.
Vague early symptoms of coughing and shortness of breath, tightness of the chest or abdominal pain were attributed to more common health problems.
But imaging scans today, such as MRIs and CT scans, are more precise. Biopsies are taken sooner. There are specific blood tests and even breath tests that can be helpful in diagnosing the disease. Everyone is much more aware.
“It used to be thought these cases of secondhand exposure were weaker for an attorney because it was harder to show where the exposure came from,” Wasserberg said. “But with the right workup, you actually have a better chance of getting a sympathetic jury that really cares.”
Although the number of mesothelioma lawsuits nationally has declined the past two years, the percentage of nonoccupational asbestos-related cases for women has risen significantly, according to KCIC, a national consulting firm that manages litigation.