Exposure to asbestos is the single proven cause of mesothelioma, a dangerous cancer of the linings of the lungs, abdomen and heart. Specific factors such as high-risk occupations and levels of exposure can increase an individual’s risk of developing mesothelioma. While we know that asbestos exposure leads to mesothelioma and other devastating illnesses, additional factors may further a person’s evolution of the disease.
Mesothelioma Risk Factors Explained
“Most people with years of asbestos exposure never develop mesothelioma,” says the Mayo Clinic, one of the best cancer centers in the U.S. “And yet, others with very brief exposure develop the disease. This indicates that other factors may be involved in determining whether someone gets mesothelioma or doesn’t.”
Another factor that may put you at risk of developing mesothelioma could be genetic. You could have a hereditary disposition to developing mesothelioma. This would theoretically put you at higher risk than others when you are exposed to asbestos.
Exposure to asbestos is the only factor directly linked to mesothelioma.
Factors like these haven’t been firmly established. But as the Mayo Clinic says, it’s very likely that there are other factors at work. These factors could also explain why some people with virtually no history of asbestos exposure are diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Some of the indirect factors that may contribute to developing mesothelioma include:
- Erionite exposure
- Radiation exposure
- SV40 virus
- Taconite exposure
Asbestos-related illnesses and mesothelioma were exceedingly rare prior to the 1900s. This was when companies and industries began using more and more asbestos. Asbestos was used in building materials ranging from bricks to insulation. Companies produced and sold hundreds of thousands of tons of asbestos-containing products in the 20th century.
Occupational Asbestos Exposure
Most asbestos exposures happen when employees of a company work with asbestos. Trades using asbestos range from manufacturing and construction to mining the asbestos fibers themselves.
People working in certain trades have a higher risk of asbestos exposure than others. Workers installing asbestos drywall probably had less risk than miners surrounded by asbestos dust.
Some of the top professions at risk for mesothelioma include:
- Shipyard workers
- Aircraft and auto mechanics
- Boilermakers and operators
- Construction workers
- Asbestos miners
- Railroad workers
- Home renovators
- Insulation manufacturers
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Veteran Risk Factors
The military was a common place for asbestos exposure. For example, the Navy used asbestos to insulate all their ships and submarines. As a result, many Navy personnel (especially shipbuilders and submariners) were diagnosed with mesothelioma. All branches of the military used asbestos in some form.
Veterans with the greatest risks were:
- Naval yard workers
- Tank mechanics
- Aircraft mechanics
Sometimes the victim of asbestos exposure is not the employee of the company. It’s a family member of a worker who was exposed to asbestos. People working with the substance would come home with the fibers coating their work clothing. The fibers were then inhaled or ingested by a family member. The family member only came in contact with asbestos from fibers brought into the house.
Asbestos Exposure Risk
The connection between asbestos and mesothelioma has been conclusively established. There are several factors that increase the risk of asbestos exposure. Your risk of developing mesothelioma grows as your risk of exposure to asbestos grows.
Here are the known factors that increase the chances of developing mesothelioma:
- Working at an asbestos mine or asbestos processing plant: Asbestos is friable. This means it breaks apart and becomes airborne easily. Asbestos was virtually everywhere in asbestos mines and factories. Every breath contained the fibers unless an individual used protective equipment. Even with protection, asbestos can be found on clothing and inhaled.
- Working in construction or automotive factories: Asbestos is found in insulation used in cars, homes, and other buildings. While the use of asbestos in these areas has decreased, older buildings and cars still contain asbestos. Workers doing remodeling work often encounter asbestos-containing insulation. Without protective equipment, they can easily inhale airborne fibers from these materials.
- Working on a military ship or in military facilities: For decades the military used asbestos to insulate every kind of facility and vehicle. Asbestos was especially prevalent in the submarines and ships. These vessels were heavily insulated with asbestos to prevent fires on board. The military used asbestos in barracks and other buildings for similar reasons. Everyone who came in contact with the insulation may have inhaled asbestos fibers.
- Living near an asbestos mine: Anyone who lives in a residential area near an asbestos mine has is at risk. There are higher concentrations of asbestos in the air near asbestos mines. Wind can carry airborne fibers to the neighboring residences. People in these areas may be exposed to asbestos fibers every time they go outside. Asbestos from nearby mines may also contaminate drinking water.
- Home renovation: Anyone in the renovation business or homeowners doing some DIY work are at risk of asbestos exposure. People must take caution when working with products that might have asbestos in them. Never disturb insulation in older homes. Hire professionals who know how to work with asbestos-containing materials.
- Length of time and concentration of asbestos exposure: People who have been exposed to a lot of asbestos for a long time are at a greater risk of getting mesothelioma. The concentration is important too. The risk is higher when there is more asbestos in the air.
Other Mesothelioma Risk Factors
Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos gets mesothelioma. Some people are at a greater risk than others.
Risk factors for developing mesothelioma include:
- BAP1 gene mutation: People born with genetic changes in the BAP1 gene are at a higher risk of getting mesothelioma if they are exposed to asbestos. There are lower rates of mesothelioma patients without this mutation.
- Radiation exposure: People who have had radiation therapy may have damaged cells. Radiation is known to cause changes in a cell’s DNA structure. The mutation may lead to mesothelioma in some.
- SV40 virus: No one knows how or why infection with the SV40 virus leads to mesothelioma. Researchers have found that viruses can affect the DNA inside cells that can lead to different types of cancer. SV40 is a monkey-related virus. Up to 30 million injections of polio vaccinations given out between 1955 and 1963 were contaminated with SV40. People with SV40 have a higher risk of mesothelioma without asbestos exposure.
- Exposure to zeolites: Zeolites are a type of mineral related to asbestos chemically. For example, erionite is a mineral found in the dirt and rocks in certain parts of Turkey. People living in these areas can get mesothelioma without exposure to asbestos.
- Injections of thorium dioxide: This is a radioactive contrast dye used in X-ray procedures prior to the 1950s. Its brand name was Thorotrast. It was discontinued after people learned it caused cancer. Some people are still at risk of developing mesothelioma because of long-ago exposure to Thorotrast.
- Increasing age: The risk of mesothelioma grows as people get older. About two-thirds of all people with mesothelioma are at least 65 years of age. This is partly because it takes decades for mesothelioma to develop.
- Male gender: Men are four times more likely than women to develop mesothelioma. This is likely due to the fact that more men are exposed to asbestos in the workplace.
Getting Your Asbestos Exposure History
Knowing the risk factors of mesothelioma may give patients some insight into where their disease came from. In most cases, the greatest risk factor is occupational asbestos exposure.
Key points about mesothelioma risk factors:
- Breathing asbestos fibers is the main risk factor.
- Genetic factors may have increased your mesothelioma risk.
- Men, veterans, and trade workers have the highest rates of asbestos exposure.
Being aware of your asbestos exposure history is crucial for getting access to compensation. There are trust funds and VA benefits that can help you pay for treatment and other costs. Mesothelioma patients are victims and shouldn’t hesitate to get help. Veterans should get help with VA benefits and learn about what free benefits are available to them.