Mesothelioma Risk Factors Explained
A risk factor is anything that increases an individual’s chance of getting a disease. Some risk factors for malignant (cancerous) mesothelioma are beyond a person’s control, like their age and gender. These risk factors are important to recognize because they can help mesothelioma victims and their doctors identify and diagnose mesothelioma at earlier stages when it is easier to treat.
Other risk factors may be preventable, such as diet and tobacco consumption. Individuals can make healthy lifestyle choices to avoid these risk factors and reduce their chances of developing mesothelioma or other similar cancers.
However, the single largest risk factor for mesothelioma is asbestos — a dangerous mineral that millions of Americans were unknowingly exposed to through their work, military service, or proximity to an exposed loved one.
Get comprehensive information about this disease in our Free Mesothelioma Guide, packed with nearly 100 pages on asbestos exposure, symptoms, treatment, and much more.
Difference Between Causes and Risk Factors of Mesothelioma
A cause of a disease is something that precedes the disease and is proven to directly result in its development. It’s a condition, event, or substance that the disease would not develop without.
A risk factor, on the other hand, is something that is associated with the disease but does not directly cause it.
A risk factor is a correlation, not a causality. A risk factor can be something that makes someone more susceptible to a disease but doesn’t directly cause the disease. It can also be something that purely coincides with the disease, such as age or socio-economic class.
Asbestos Exposure as a Mesothelioma Risk Factor
As far as mesothelioma is concerned, the only known cause, as well as the highest risk factor, is asbestos. When asbestos fibers are inhaled and travel into the lungs or are swallowed and pass through the digestive system, they can stick in the lining of the lungs (the pleura), the abdomen (the peritoneum), or the heart (the pericardium).
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that develops as a fibrous bundle. It forms in rocks and deposits throughout the world, and its flexibility, durability, and resistance to fire made asbestos a popular material for a wide range of products from the 1930s to the early 1980s.
Asbestos is the main risk factor for mesothelioma. Those exposed to it, either through primary or secondary exposure, are the only ones at risk for contracting mesothelioma.
However, the extent of a person’s asbestos exposure, as well as the type of asbestos they encounter, play a role in determining the severity of their risk.
While no amount of asbestos exposure is safe, the following factors influence the risk level:
- Type: Asbestos can be categorized into two main types — serpentine, and amphibole. Serpentine asbestos fibers are long and curly, while amphibole fibers are short and straight like needles.
- Concentration: The amount of asbestos a person is exposed to at one time.
- Duration: The length of time someone is exposed to and breathing in asbestos at a given time.
- Frequency: The number of times a person is exposed to asbestos over their lifetime.
Occupational Exposure Risks
Many blue-collar workers in the United States faced an increased risk of exposure to asbestos on a daily basis, especially at the height of its use in the 20th century.
Occupations where individuals were and are exposed to asbestos in higher concentrations, longer durations, or on more frequent occasions pose higher risks than those with minimal exposure.
Occupations with high asbestos exposure risk include:
- Automotive technicians: Many mechanics dealt with brakes, clutches, and gaskets that contained asbestos.
- Construction workers: A huge number of construction materials were once made with asbestos. Construction workers, from drywall installers to tile setters to roofers and painters, likely handled asbestos on a daily basis as late as the 1990s.
- Firefighters and first responders: Older buildings often contain a lot of asbestos-containing materials, so when these buildings catch fire, dangerous asbestos particles are released into the air. Unfortunately, firefighters are often exposed to this asbestos dust while saving lives.
- Insulators: Insulators are often needed to install or remove asbestos-based insulation from buildings. This close contact with disturbed asbestos fibers puts them at a higher-than-average risk of inhaling or ingesting asbestos particles.
- Plumbers: Pipes were once commonly wrapped in asbestos for insulation. Plumbers, pipelayers, pipefitters, and steamfitters often removed this insulation as part of their job, leading to high rates of asbestos-related diseases.
- Power plant workers: Boilers and turbines were often insulated with asbestos.
- Shipbuilders: Both military personnel and civilians building ships in shipyards were at incredibly high risk of asbestos exposure, as the mineral was a popular insulation and fireproofing material on ships.
Many other individuals who do not fall into these groups are at higher risk of developing mesothelioma through occupational asbestos exposure.
Lower-to-moderate-risk occupations include:
- And more
Whether someone has direct or secondary contact with asbestos can play a role in their level of risk for mesothelioma. Those who encounter and breathe in asbestos directly experience primary exposure.
But those who encounter primary exposure often carry asbestos fibers with them on their clothes, hair, and skin into their homes, resulting in secondary exposure for their loved ones who may breathe in the fibers they bring home.
Primary exposure poses a higher risk of mesothelioma than secondary exposure. However, both types of exposure have produced cases of mesothelioma.
Military Asbestos Exposure Risks
Sadly, United States veterans are at especially high risk of developing mesothelioma because of the military’s heavy use of the mineral from around 1935-1975. According to a medical study published in the journal Ultrastructural Pathology, veterans represent roughly a third of those diagnosed with mesothelioma.
While its flame-resistant properties and high durability helped protect military personnel, it also caused great harm.
Veterans may have been exposed to asbestos in:
While the U.S. military took great efforts to remove asbestos from their ships and other assets once its dangers became known, millions of veterans and their family members may have been exposed.
Asbestos Exposure Risk at Home
Asbestos is best known for its use in insulation, but it can also be found in roofing, machinery, and a wide range of industrial applications.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the use of asbestos was common in these materials to create buildings — including homes.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), since the mid-1970s the United States has dramatically decreased the amount of asbestos use in the country. However, many older homes still contain asbestos.
If undisturbed, asbestos in building materials should not cause harm. However, activities such as drilling and remodeling or natural wear and tear to a home may loosen fibers, causing them to be inhaled or ingested. Individuals living in older homes may benefit from having a trained asbestos abatement professional test their home for asbestos fibers. They should never attempt to remove asbestos on their own.
Environmental Asbestos Exposure
While it is rare, some people may be exposed to asbestos in the natural environment.
Naturally occurring asbestos deposits may be exposed through asbestos mining, putting individuals who live near the asbestos mine at risk when the mineral is disturbed and released into the air or brought home on clothing.
One example of environmental asbestos exposure was man-made. Since 1919, the residents of Libby, Montana, were poisoned by toxic asbestos dust from the vermiculite mines established there.
As reported by The Guardian, “the rate of lung disease in Libby is between 40 and 60 times the national average.”
While many cases of mesothelioma develop in miners and their immediate family members, many others occur in individuals merely living near areas where asbestos mining took place.
Asbestos Exposure Levels and Risk
People at the greatest risk of developing mesothelioma seem to be those who have been exposed to high levels of asbestos for significant periods of time.
However, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “there is no ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber.’
Anyone who has been exposed to asbestos is at risk of developing mesothelioma. This risk does not appear to decrease over time, and because asbestos-related diseases can take decades to develop, asbestos exposure remains a risk factor long after the exposure has stopped.
If you or a loved one has developed mesothelioma, our Free Mesothelioma Doctor Match Program can match you with mesothelioma specialists and cancer centers who can best treat your disease. We consider various factors, including location, experience, current health, and ability to travel.
Other Substances as Mesothelioma Risk Factors
Researchers are studying a few other substances that may be mesothelioma risk factors. To date, asbestos is the only confirmed cause of mesothelioma, but a few studies have noted a potential link between other substances and the development of mesothelioma.
Zeolite and Erionite Exposure
Zeolites are a type of mineral with similar properties to asbestos. Some research has linked exposure to zeolite to the development of mesothelioma.
One zeolite found in Turkey and parts of the United States called erionite was extensively studied in the search for a “mesothelioma gene.” It was discovered that at least one genetic mutation resulted in mesothelioma within entire family groups when they were exposed to naturally occurring erionite.
Zeolites have strong purification and absorption properties that make them a popular choice for many commercial and household products.
Natural and artificially created zeolites may be used in:
- Animal feed
- Pet litter
- Purification applications
The United States Geological Survey currently recognizes approximately 40 naturally occurring zeolites, which can be found in rocks and ashes, and an additional 150 synthesized zeolites.
However, it is unknown how many — if any — of these substances present risk factors for mesothelioma.
Carbon nanotubes have not been proven to be a mesothelioma risk factor, but they are under scrutiny because of their similarities to asbestos.
Carbon nanotubes are microscopic nanoparticles shaped like tubes. They are used in nanotechnology, optics, and electronics because of their excellent electrical conductivity.
Radiation therapy used in the course of cancer treatment — or in occupational settings, such as by radiology technicians — has been linked to the development of mesothelioma.
It is believed that the same radiation that kills cancer cells may sometimes cause healthy cells to develop mutations that, in rare cases, lead to mesothelioma.
Other forms of radiation have also been linked to mesothelioma, including ongoing low-grade exposure to atomic radiation energy.
Individuals may also be at risk of developing mesothelioma if they received the radioactive drug Thorotrast, which was used for X-rays until its dangerous side effects were discovered in the 1950s.
According to a study published in the International Journal of Cancer, elevated risks for lung carcinoma and malignant mesothelioma were identified in patients who were injected with this drug.
Individuals who received a certain polio vaccination and were also exposed to asbestos may be at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma due to a virus known as simian virus 40 (SV40). Those who contracted the virus after it was introduced in humans may also be at increased risk.
While polio vaccines are considered safe by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an outbreak of SV40 in monkeys accidentally made it into millions of vaccinations between 1955-1963.
SV40 is a virus that alters the genetic composition of cells, potentially leading to mutations that, along with asbestos fibers, cause mesothelioma.
Studies such as one published in the journal Cancer Research are not conclusive, but there is enough evidence to warrant caution in individuals known to have been exposed to the SV40 virus.
Lifestyle & Other Risk Factors
While limited research has been done on lifestyle risk factors for mesothelioma specifically, there has been an abundance of research into how lifestyle impacts cancer risk in general.
The World Cancer Fund estimates that 20% of all cancer is preventable and may be eliminated through healthy lifestyle choices such as avoiding certain foods and getting enough exercise.
It is important to note that these lifestyle risk factors alone do not contribute to mesothelioma and there is no evidence that they lower a person’s risk of developing mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos.
However, lifestyle risk factors may put asbestos-exposed people at greater risk of developing mesothelioma after their exposure.
Cancer researchers have noted that people who do not smoke and eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day have a lower risk of developing lung cancer.
Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and regular exercise is one of the best ways to control this risk factor and minimize the likelihood of developing mesothelioma.
The ACS recommends that men drink a maximum of 2 alcoholic beverages per day, while women should only drink a maximum of 1 alcoholic beverage.
One beverage is considered 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof hard liquor, or 5 ounces of wine. Drinking more than this amount on a regular basis may be a risk factor for developing cancer.
Admittedly, there is much debate and conflicting information regarding the impact smoking has on the development of mesothelioma. Some studies indicate that smoking does increase one’s risk of developing mesothelioma and that asbestos-exposed individuals who also smoke are twice as likely to develop the disease.
However, smoking undeniably damages the lungs and suppresses the immune system, both of which make an individual susceptible to cancer and disease, including mesothelioma.
Furthermore, studies have proven that those who smoke and have been exposed to asbestos are far more likely to develop lung disease and cancer than those exposed only to asbestos or only to smoking. This may be because smoking causes significant independent damage to the lungs. Smoking is, therefore, considered a mesothelioma risk factor.
In addition, researchers have found a potential link between smoking and the BAP1 gene mutation that increases the likelihood of developing mesothelioma.
Doctors strongly urge everyone exposed to asbestos or those with a mesothelioma diagnosis to quit smoking.
Regardless, the risks smoking poses to those exposed to asbestos are well established. Doctors firmly recommend quitting smoking if you have mesothelioma or if you were exposed to asbestos since your chances of developing lung cancer become even greater than the individual risks of either asbestos exposure or smoking combined.
Some studies suggest that those exposed to high amounts of radiation after asbestos exposure were more likely to develop mesothelioma. This was especially true for those who received high doses of radiation to the abdomen or chest while treating another type of cancer. However, even in these patients, mesothelioma remained a rare occurrence.
Download our Free 14 Questions to Ask Your Doctor Checklist to ensure you get all the answers you need regarding your risk for mesothelioma.
Uncontrollable Risk Factors
Several mesothelioma risk factors are beyond an individual’s control, but it is important to be aware of them.
Having multiple mesothelioma risk factors makes it more likely that an individual will develop this deadly cancer. Therefore, being aware of even the uncontrollable risk factors can help diagnose the cancer at an early stage, which may significantly improve mesothelioma prognosis (disease outlook).
Mesothelioma, like all cancers, is caused by genetic mutations that lead to uncontrolled cell growth. Some people are naturally predisposed to genetic mutations, carrying genes or other biological markers that make their cells more likely to mutate later in life.
Another potential risk factor is having the BAP1 gene mutation. This is a rare mutation of a gene that, under normal circumstances, helps to limit cell growth and can suppress cancer development. The mutation of the BAP1 gene means that this cancer-fighting cell cannot operate correctly, thus leaving the individual with an increased risk for cancer development.
When this particular BAP1 mutation is combined with asbestos exposure, mesothelioma may be more likely to develop than it would in someone without the gene.
Mesothelioma has been diagnosed in children and young adults. However, according to a 2017 study published in Lung Cancer International, roughly two-thirds of mesothelioma patients are age 65 or older, making age a risk factor for mesothelioma.
Certain demographics face a much higher risk for mesothelioma than others. White males over the age of 45, typically 65 and older, are most at risk.
The reason mesothelioma is so common among this population is that far more white males worked in high-risk occupations than women or men of other races.
Mesothelioma typically develops in later years because of the cancer’s latency — it takes anywhere from 10-50 years for mesothelioma to develop after initial exposure to asbestos. Furthermore, the worst levels of exposure occurred before asbestos regulations were established in the 1980s.
Mesothelioma is far more common in individuals in their mid-to-late 40s or older who worked in high-risk occupations prior to the 1980s.
Men are more likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma, likely due to their increased exposure to asbestos compared to women. Men were likely to have jobs that put them in direct or indirect contact with asbestos, such as military work and construction.
However, when comparing male and female mesothelioma victims, some studies found that female mesothelioma victims tend to survive longer with the disease.
Women with mesothelioma may outlive male victims because they:
- Are less likely to be exposed to asbestos and may have lower exposure levels
- Are overrepresented among peritoneal mesothelioma victims, who have a longer median survival time than pleural mesothelioma victims
- Have higher estrogen levels, which some studies have linked to slower epithelial mesothelioma progression
- Tend to be diagnosed at a younger age than male victims
Mesothelioma specialists are continuing to study how an individual’s biological gender may contribute to their risk of developing mesothelioma.
Know Your Risks for Developing Mesothelioma
There are many potential risk factors that may contribute to the development of mesothelioma, but few of them have been confirmed. Asbestos exposure is, overwhelmingly, the main risk factor for developing this deadly disease.
If you were exposed to asbestos throughout your career and you’ve since developed mesothelioma, you may be struggling to cope with the grief and trauma associated with your condition.
Our team is available to assist you and your family in dealing with your diagnosis. From connecting you with emotional and financial support to matching you with the right specialist for your diagnosis, our Patient Advocates are standing by to help you.
Mesothelioma Risk Factors FAQs
What is the major risk factor of mesothelioma?
The major risk factor of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure.
Stray asbestos fibers can be inhaled or swallowed, and these fibers become trapped within the body. Over time, these fibers can irritate the organ linings and form mesothelioma tumors, but it can take 10-50 years for symptoms of this cancer to develop.
Who is prone to mesothelioma?
People in certain occupations have a higher risk of asbestos exposure due to the products and materials they work with on a daily basis.
High-risk individuals include:
- Automotive workers
- Construction workers
- Shipyard workers
There are many other occupations and worksites that have been linked to asbestos exposure. To learn more about workplace asbestos exposure and the options that may be available to you, contact us today.
What are the odds of getting mesothelioma?
Mesothelioma is considered a rare cancer, as it accounts for only 0.3% of cancer diagnoses in the United States each year.
Despite this, if you have a history of asbestos exposure and you begin displaying symptoms of mesothelioma, it is important to talk to your doctor. Those who have been exposed to asbestos are at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma.