Many of the sons, daughters and spouses of Canadian workers sickened by asbestos are now discovering their own serious lung disorders and diseases, which doctors say were triggered by the poisonous dust brought home by their fathers and husbands.

Like second-hand cigarette smoke, the dust penetrated car upholstery and clothes, and may have even been transmitted through hugs -- resulting years later in new victims of old mistakes.

Because the phenomenon wasn't discovered until recently, many people are learning about their condition too late for treatment.

Tom O'Donnell, who lives in Bowmanville, Ont., is one of those second-generation victims known as a "bystander."

At age 49, he is facing an early death due to mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

His father, who worked with asbestos for 30 years, and like many others had no idea it was poisonous, died of the same disease a decade ago. Then O'Donnell's sister died, followed by his brother.

"They figure it was on his clothes. The dust was on his clothes, it would be in the car," O'Donnell told CTV News.

The mineral, once used as home insulation and as a fire retardant, has destroyed his family.

It has also limited his ability to work, putting his standard of living at a near-poverty level because secondary victims don't qualify for financial help under the Workers Compensation Act.

"I still don't know how much time I have left. I don't even know if I will see this interview on TV," he said. "I didn't do anything to deserve this."

Across Canada, many children and spouses of former asbestos workers are also at risk of chronic lung problems and cancer, but may not realize it.

Doctors are worried as the numbers of mesothelioma cases rise across the country.

"If anyone in your family worked with asbestos in the 1950s to early 1980s it would be worthwhile being checked out by a health care provider, especially if there are respiratory symptoms," Dr. Abe Reinhartz told CTV News.

A test is now in place -- a CT scan that searches for early signs of the disease. Some physicians are trying to spread the word that the screening exists.

"The benefits for the bystanders to get early screening is because potentially we can find the lung cancer and the mesothelioma early, before it would cause symptoms, and the earlier you treat it the better your chances of survival," said Dr. Heidi Roberts of Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital.

James Brophy, executive director of the occupational health clinic in Sarnia, Ont., agreed.

"From a point of view of early detection and surveillance identification of this disease and making it a public health (issue) -- making the public aware of it could save people's lives," Brophy told CTV News.

He also said the families of affected workers deserve financial assistance.

"It's so obvious compensation boards should be recognizing these people as suffering from work-related diseases whether they were in the workplace or not," he said.

For O'Donnell and his family, the news that the diagnostic test exists comes too late. But they don't want others to face the same grim situation, and want to spread the word that there is a test.

"We are just dying in the background and they don't know, and I feel I have to do something, I have to say something to get this out," said Tom's sister, Judy Russell, who now shares a small Bowmanville apartment with her brother.

With a report from CTV's Avis Favaro and Elizabeth St. Philip