In 1897, the first physician in modern times to comment on lung disease in asbestos workers also commented on ill health among the workers' family members. Absent safeguards at the work site, workers exposed to asbestos dust from insulation products would take the contaminant home on their clothes, where it would accumulate in carpets, clothing, curtains and furniture.
Researchers in Finland described cases of pulmonary asbestosis in the households of asbestos workers. Their findings were reported at a large conference held in 1964 by the New York Academy of Sciences. These investigators (and others in Germany) previously had called attention to pleural changes observed in chest X-rays of populations with environmental asbestos exposure.
In 1965, mesothelioma was reported by two British investigators, Newhouse and Thompson, in 20 persons in the London area who had only household or environmental asbestos exposures.. The authors concluded that "There seems little doubt that the risk of mesothelioma may arise from both occupational and domestic exposures to asbestos."
In compiling histories of 76 deceased mesothelioma patients and 76 hospital patient "controls" in London, Newhouse and her collaborator identified nine mesothelioma patients as having had "domestic" exposure to asbestos.
In one of the mesothelioma cases studied, the wife washed her husband's work clothes. In another instance, a relative said that the husband, a docker, came home "white with asbestos" every evening for three or four years and that his wife brushed him down.
The two men in the series of mesothelioma cases, when boys of 8 or 9 years old, had sisters who worked at an asbestos factory. One of these girls worked as a spinner from 1925 to 1936. In 1946, she died of asbestosis. The press report of the inquest stated, 'she used to return home from work with dust on her clothes." Her brother had apparently no other exposure to asbestos. He died in 1956 of a pleural mesothelioma.
The Newhouse study, although of great importance, served mainly to reinforce lessons learned over many years. Moreover, the household cases reported by Newhouse could not be attributed to so-called "background" exposure because they were rooted in defined residential exposure settings.
Naturally, additional studies have followed, including "Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure," published in 1967 by Lieben and Pistawka. In this study, all household cases of mesothelioma were traced to exposures from fibers brought home on asbestos-laden work clothes.