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Mesothelioma Causes

Quick Summary

Asbestos is the only proven cause of mesothelioma. It can take up to 50 years for mesothelioma to develop after exposure to asbestos.

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What Causes Mesothelioma?

Research is clear on one proven cause of mesothelioma, and that’s asbestos exposure. Inhaling or ingesting airborne fibers can cause mesothelioma.

Asbestos is a fiber that has needle-like qualities. It is fairly light and can float in the air for long periods of time. Because the asbestos fibers are like tiny needles, they bore into the tissues inside the body. They aren’t easily coughed out.

Exposure to asbestos can happen in three primary ways, including:

  1. Occupationally: This is the most common type of asbestos exposure. Many mesothelioma patients had past on-the-job asbestos exposure.
  2. Secondhand: People exposed to asbestos in their occupation may have unintentionally exposed their family members as well. Asbestos fibers can get stuck to clothing. These fibers may be released at home where other people can breathe the fibers.
  3. Naturally: Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. There are deposits of the fibers in some parts of America. People living near asbestos deposits or mines may breathe in the fibers nearby.

Once inhaled, asbestos fibers remain in the body. Inhaled fibers eventually migrate to the lining of the lungs. Ingested fibers can migrate to the peritoneum, which lines the abdominal cavity.

Asbestos fibers remain in these tissues for decades before mesothelioma develops. The first symptoms of mesothelioma may take up to 50 years to develop. The end result is mesothelioma — a cancer that requires aggressive treatment.

How Mesothelioma Develops

Cancers like mesothelioma happen when the genetic blueprint (the DNA) inside the cells is changed. This mutation causes the cells to divide uncontrollably with no signal to stop.

In normal cells, DNA signals the cell when it is supposed to divide, how much it is to develop and grow and when it should die. Cell death is a natural process called apoptosis—cellular suicide that tells the cell to kill itself before it becomes cancerous.

If cellular DNA is damaged by asbestos, normal signals do not happen. Cells continue to divide and grow even when they are not supposed to. Mutated cells eventually stick together and form mesothelioma tumors.

Cancers often happen in areas of inflammation. For example, when asbestos fibers are inhaled, they travel to the lining of the lungs (the pleura) and settle there. The pleura becomes inflamed for many years until some of the DNA in a cell becomes damaged and cancer cells form. If the asbestos fibers are swallowed, they can travel in the abdomen and settle on the areas of the abdomen that line the organs and the abdominal cavity. Inflammation occurs and can eventually lead to peritoneal mesothelioma.

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Finding the Link Between Asbestos and Mesothelioma

The connection between asbestos and mesothelioma wasn’t formally established until the mid to late 20th century. By the 1970s, it became clear that asbestos exposure caused mesothelioma. It is extremely rare for a person to develop mesothelioma who was not exposed to this type of fiber.

Did you know?

Asbestos not only causes mesothelioma, but it is also the only cause of a lung disease known as asbestosis. Mesothelioma only affects the lining of the lung. Asbestosis affects the entire lung but is not cancerous. It causes thickening in the lung, reducing lung function and decreasing life expectancy.

By 2011, the connection between asbestos and mesothelioma became even clearer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer presented their findings on the link between the development of mesothelioma and asbestos exposure to the World Health Organization conference where they discussed the latest scientific research.

Their report conclusively demonstrated the connection between asbestos and mesothelioma. The researchers noted that neither the type of asbestos nor the length of the asbestos fiber played a role in mesothelioma development.

Where Is Asbestos Found?

Asbestos can be found in:

  • Acoustic ceiling tiles
  • Boiler insulation
  • Cement pipe
  • Cement sheeting
  • Drywall
  • Electrical wiring
  • Gaskets and bushings
  • Glues and adhesives
  • Shingles and roofing materials
  • Spray-on insulation
  • Vinyl floor tiles

Most of the time, these products remain harmless, especially since they are often encased behind walls where the fibers can’t reach you.

When older structures are remodeled or torn down, the risk of asbestos inhalation increases. This possibility should be taken into account whenever dealing with the destruction or remodeling of older homes. Inadvertent exposure to asbestos can still occur if workers or homeowners are not aware that asbestos was used in the making of their home or business.

Environmental Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is found naturally in rocks and soil. There are certain areas of the world where there is an abundance of asbestos in the soil increasing the likelihood of developing mesothelioma for those living nearby.

There are two main areas with natural asbestos in the U.S. They are in El Dorado Hills, California and Libby, Montana. Libby was home to an asbestos-contaminated mine, which was declared a public health hazard by the EPA in 2002. The vermiculite mine’s owner agreed to pay $250 million toward the town’s cleanup. It took the town 15 intensive years of clean up.

There are no active asbestos mines currently in the U.S. People who live where these mines were located are still at risk for asbestos exposure.

Did you know?

The asbestos located in the Libby, Montana site is one of the most toxic types of asbestos. It’s a type of asbestos called amphibole asbestos. It’s so dangerous because it breaks apart and becomes airborne with the lightest touch. The microscopic fibers in amphibole asbestos lodge into the lungs more easily than other types.

Other Asbestos-Related Diseases

The only cause of mesothelioma is asbestos, but asbestos doesn’t only cause mesothelioma. Asbestos fibers can mutate and destroy healthy cells in unexpected ways.

Here are the other illnesses caused by asbestos:

  • Asbestosis: This non-cancerous disease occurs when asbestos causes lung-scarring. Asbestos fibers lodge into the tiny sacs (alveoli) in your lungs that process oxygen, which makes it harder to breathe. Air doesn’t easily pass through scarred lung tissue. This disease often occurs in people who had high levels of asbestos exposure. Like mesothelioma, it can take decades for the symptoms to appear.
  • Pleural disease: This disease is also non-cancerous. Asbestos causes changes to the lining of the lungs, or pleura. The pleura often becomes thicker. This makes it harder for the lungs to expand, which makes breathing more difficult. Thickening of the pleura can occur in part or all of the lung. Pleural disease can also cause fluid buildup in the pleural space.
  • Lung cancer: Unlike mesothelioma, there are many known causes of lung cancer. The greatest risk, of course, is smoking. However, like mesothelioma, lung cancer may also be caused by asbestos. This is generally harder to prove, but scientists have found a link between asbestos exposure and lung cancer.

People Worried About Their Asbestos Exposure

A lot of people in construction and manufacturing trades have had exposure to asbestos. Some of them worry that they might develop an asbestos-related disease. This could be due to recent symptoms like persistent cough and shortness of breath, and some people get nervous about their past exposure when they learn about mesothelioma.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “People concerned about asbestos exposure should visit their doctor or other medical providers.”

Your doctor can review your symptoms and exposure history to determine if you need further tests. If you’re still nervous, there are preventative measures that can decrease your odds of getting an asbestos-related illness.

The CDC recommends four preventative measures, including:

  • Keep going to the doctor for regular medical exams.
  • Get vaccinated against flu and pneumonia.
  • If you smoke, make a plan to quit.
  • Avoid all future exposure to asbestos.

Why Were People Exposed to Asbestos?

Unfortunately, the majority of companies using asbestos in the mid to late 20th century knew that asbestos was dangerous. There is evidence showing that countless corporations continued using asbestos in their products after conducting independent research on the mineral.

Most companies found that asbestos was a cancer-causing mineral, but the companies decided the affordability and abundance of asbestos outweighed the costs of potential lawsuits.

Did you know?

Although many veterans were exposed to asbestos in the armed forces, the U.S. military isn’t to blame. Private companies supplied the U.S. military with the asbestos-containing materials that so many veterans worked with. These companies are legally at fault.

Eventually, public research confirmed the dangers of asbestos. As these facts came to light, people began filing lawsuits against their former employers. These lawsuits forced companies to produce evidence against themselves.

Taking Control of Your Diagnosis

Knowing the causes of mesothelioma can lead to better treatment. Your asbestos exposure history is an important factor in determining your diagnosis. Even if you aren’t sure where your exposure came from, your doctor can help.

Things to remember about how mesothelioma develops:

  • Asbestos is the only proven cause of mesothelioma.
  • Most people were exposed to asbestos in their jobs.
  • Mesothelioma patients are victims.

Knowing your exposure history is also important for those who want compensation. There are trust funds set up for victims of asbestos exposure. These funds have billions of dollars in compensation. These funds can cover medical costs and secure your family’s future. Only people who can prove their asbestos exposure history can access these funds. Get legal help accessing your funds now.

Veterans Support Team
Todd Gersten, MD PhotoReviewed by:Todd Gersten, MD

Double Board-Certified Oncologist and Hematologist

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Todd Gersten, MD is a double board-certified medical oncologist and hematologist specializing in general adult oncology and hematologic disease. He is a physician partner with the Florida Cancer Specialists and practices in Wellington, Florida.

Dr. Todd Gersten is an independently paid medical reviewer.

Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

View Sources

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. CDC. “Health Effects of Asbestos.” Retrieved from: Accessed on August 31st, 2017.

Environmental Protection Agency. “Superfund Site: Libby Asbestos Site.” Retrieved from: Accessed on August 31st, 2017.

Mayo Clinic. “Asbestosis Symptoms and Causes.” Retrieved from: Accessed on August 30th, 2017.

Mayo Clinic. “Mesothelioma Causes.” Retrieved from: Accessed on August 30th, 2017.

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