Mesothelioma Causes

Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Asbestos fibers travel through the body and attach themselves to the linings of the lungs, stomach, heart, or testes. These fibers irritate and scar healthy cells, and eventually cause cancer tumors to form. Learn more about the causes of mesothelioma and how to prevent asbestos exposure.

What Causes Mesothelioma?

The only confirmed cause of malignant mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral made up of strong, microscopic fibers.

Asbestos was commonly used to build several types of structures in the 1930s and early 1980s due to its resistance to fire, water, sound, and more. Because of this, many industries used asbestos-containing materials before the dangers of asbestos were known to the general public.

Causes of Mesothelioma Video Thumbnail

Registered Nurse Amy Fair discusses how exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma. View Transcript.

Duration: 1 min 06 sec

What are the causes of mesothelioma?

Many times after being diagnosed with mesothelioma your physician may ask you if you have been exposed to asbestos. Asbestos is a causative factor for mesothelioma. Some of the imaging studies may show underlying pleural plaques which are indicated that they have been around asbestos and may show underlying asbestosis.

The risk factors for developing mesothelioma are working around asbestos-related products or being indirectly around those products such as secondhand exposures that are seen with wives that launder their loved ones’ clothes and have asbestos dust on them. So direct asbestos exposure, as well as indirect asbestos exposure, can be causative factors for mesothelioma.

If you have symptoms of mesothelioma or any asbestos-related disease, it’s important that you inform your doctor of your asbestos exposure so that appropriate testing can be done.

Mesothelioma Risk Factors

There are several factors that may put individuals at a higher risk of mesothelioma than others.

Factors that may increase the risk of mesothelioma include:

  • Asbestos exposure history: You may be more likely to develop mesothelioma if you regularly worked around or handled asbestos-based products.
  • Family history of mesothelioma: If a relative developed this deadly lung cancer, you may also be at risk. For example, you may have suffered secondhand exposure if a loved one who had mesothelioma worked around asbestos.
  • Genetic mutation: According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a mutation in the BAP1 gene can increase the chances of developing mesothelioma tumors.

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How Does Asbestos Cause Mesothelioma?

Individuals who are around asbestos products and inhale or swallow asbestos fibers can develop mesothelioma decades later.

The type of cancer developed can vary based on where the asbestos fibers stick in the body. Fibers that stick to the lung lining (pleura) can cause pleural mesothelioma, whereas fibers reaching the stomach lining (peritoneum) can cause peritoneal mesothelioma.

Although rare, pericardial mesothelioma is caused by asbestos fibers irritating the lining of the heart (pericardium) and testicular mesothelioma is caused by fibers irritating the lining of the testes (tunica vaginalis).

Learn more about how mesothelioma develops from asbestos fibers.

Illustration showing how asbestos fibers causes mesothelioma.
  • 1. ExposureAsbestos fibers are sent into the air through activities like mining, building renovations, automobile or ship maintenance, and the wearing and tearing of asbestos-based products.
  • 2. EntryFibers enter the body through small air passages when inhaled or swallowed and stick to the lung lining (pleura), stomach lining (peritoneum), heart (pericardium), or testes (tunica vaginalis).
  • 3. IrritationOnce inside the body, the fibers inflame and scar healthy mesothelial cells. Asbestos fibers are so small and strong that the body can never remove them or break them down.
  • 4. Cancer GrowthDecades later, asbestos fibers damage the DNA of health cells leading to uncontrollable cancer cell growth. Mesothelioma tumors form as cancerous cells multiply.

Where Can You Be Exposed to Asbestos?

Many people have been exposed to asbestos in some capacity from the 1930s to today.

Those who serve in the U.S. military or in industrial occupations are at a higher risk of asbestos exposure. Some people may also be exposed to asbestos in their homes or in natural environments, but this is very rare. It is much more common to experience asbestos exposure at the fault of a manufacturer.

Learn more about the different types of asbestos exposure below.

Occupational Asbestos Exposure

The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) reports that occupational exposure most common way people come in contact with asbestos.

Did you know?

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 27 million employees were exposed to asbestos fibers through high-risk workplaces from 1940 and 1979.

Worksites with a high risk of asbestos exposure include:

  • Automobile assembly plants
  • Chemical plants
  • Coal and asbestos mines
  • Construction sites
  • Mining sites
  • Power plants
  • Shipyards
  • Steel mills

Although the use of asbestos was greatly reduced in the 1980s after the dangers of the mineral were widely publicized, it has not been completely banned. Some of these work sites still come with a risk of asbestos exposure and mesothelioma even today. According to OSHA, 1.3 million workers have been exposed to asbestos in the modern-day.

Military Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos was heavily used by the military to keep several types of structures flame-resistant and durable. Due to the large volumes of asbestos used by the military, U.S. veterans account for over 30% of all cases of mesothelioma.

The U.S. military used asbestos in:

  • Airplanes
  • Bases & other buildings
  • Ships
  • Vehicles

The U.S. Navy used more asbestos than any other military branch. As a result, Navy veterans have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma.

Get our free Mesothelioma Guide today to learn more about how asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma.

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Secondhand Asbestos Exposure

Individuals can also develop mesothelioma through secondary exposure. Family members and friends may have been indirectly exposed if someone worked around asbestos regularly. For example, workers could carry asbestos fibers back home on their clothes, skin, and hair.

“There is some evidence that family members of workers heavily exposed to asbestos face an increased risk of developing mesothelioma.”

– National Cancer Institute

Environmental Asbestos Exposure

According to the NCI, many people experience some level of asbestos exposure due to small amounts of fibers entering the air, water, and soil. This type of environmental exposure rarely makes people ill.

However, there are some places where asbestos exists in unusually high concentrations. For example, people living close to mines or asbestos deposits are at a greater risk of mesothelioma.

Preventing Asbestos Exposure and Mesothelioma

According to the NCI, there is generally no safe level of asbestos exposure. Some people have even developed asbestos-related diseases after only one instance of asbestos exposure, according to NORD.

Although there is no known cure and no way to prevent mesothelioma after asbestos exposure, there are several steps you can take to avoid coming into contact with this deadly material.

Construction material that contain asbesos fibers.

Know the Dangers

Areas with a high concentration of asbestos are one of the main causes of mesothelioma. Identifying these areas and knowing the dangers of these areas can help you prevent exposure.

Learn if you may come into contact with asbestos while you work. For example, some commercial and public buildings still contain asbestos, which may pose a risk if the building is damaged or being renovated.

Follow Safety Regulations

If your occupation involves working around asbestos, follow all guidelines in place to reduce your risk of exposure.

Also, showering and changing clothes before leaving work can help protect your loved ones from secondhand exposure.

Take Precautions at Home

Many older homes may still contain asbestos, such as homes with popcorn ceilings. This can lead to direct asbestos exposure and a higher risk of developing mesothelioma.

If you have an older home, make sure to get it inspected. If the asbestos in your home poses a threat, consult a professional to have it removed. Do not handle asbestos yourself.

Voice Your Concerns

If you are concerned about asbestos in the workplace or your home, get in touch with your employer or landlord. They can take steps to seal or remove asbestos products to help keep you safe.

Advocate for Asbestos Bans

Asbestos is still not completely banned in the United States. You can advocate for an asbestos ban by signing petitions that urge the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take action or by calling your local congressman to support laws that ban asbestos.

Learn More About Asbestos Exposure and Mesothelioma

Millions of people were exposed to asbestos without knowing the grave dangers. Manufacturers of asbestos-containing products hid the truth about the toxic effects from the public.

If you or a loved one developed mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure, you may be entitled to financial compensation to help you pay for treatment and other expenses.

No matter where you are in your journey in the fight against mesothelioma, we can help you get the assistance and information you need. Get our free Mesothelioma Guide today to learn more.

Common Questions About Mesothelioma Causes

What is mesothelioma caused by?

The only known mesothelioma cause is a history of asbestos exposure. Many people were exposed to this mineral as it was widely used from the 1930s until the early 1980s in buildings, construction materials, and hundreds of other products.

Due to the long latency period of asbestos, it can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years for mesothelioma symptoms to develop after exposure.

How do asbestos fibers cause cancer?

Asbestos fibers can go flying into the air when disturbed. The airborne fibers then can be inhaled or ingested. The fibers will attach to the linings of organs like the lungs or stomach and stay dormant for decades.

Can you get mesothelioma without asbestos exposure?

At this time, the only known mesothelioma cause is asbestos exposure. However, cancer research and clinical trials are showing that there are some potential genetic factors that can put individuals at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma.

Researchers continue to study other possible mesothelioma causes and treatment methods for those diagnosed.

What should I do if I think I have mesothelioma?

Contact your doctor as soon as possible if you were exposed to asbestos and are showing symptoms of mesothelioma.

Some common symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss

The only way to confirm a mesothelioma diagnosis is to get a biopsy. Getting an early diagnosis can help you access more mesothelioma treatment options before cancer starts to spread to other organs.

Download our free Symptoms Checklist to track any signs of mesothelioma and share them with your doctor.

Reviewed by:Dr. Mark Levin

Certified Oncologist and Hematologist

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Mark Levin, MD has nearly 30 years of experience in academic and community hematology and oncology. In addition to serving as Chief or Director at four different teaching institutions throughout his life, he is also still a practicing clinician, has taught and designed formal education programs, and has authored numerous publications in various fields related to hematology and oncology.

Dr. Mark Levin is an independently paid medical reviewer.

Mesothelioma Hope was founded by a team of advocates to educate people about this aggressive form of cancer. Mesothelioma affects thousands of people each year. We help give hope to those impacted by mesothelioma.

7 references
  1. The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team. (n.d.). What Causes Malignant Mesothelioma? Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/malignant-mesothelioma/causes-risks-prevention/what-causes.html
  2. Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet
  3. Asbestos toxicity: Who is at risk of exposure to asbestos? (2014, August 26). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/asbestos/who_is_at_risk.html
  4. ATSDR Case Studies in Environmental Medicine - Asbestos Toxicity. (2014, January 29). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/asbestos_2014/docs/asbestos.pdf
  5. Mesothelioma. (2020, October 20). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mesothelioma/symptoms-causes/syc-20375022
  6. Mesothelioma. (2020, October 26). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/mesothelioma/
  7. Substance Technical Information for Asbestos - Non-Mandatory. (n.d.). Retrieved September 15, 2021, from https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1926/1926.1101AppH

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