Mesothelioma Causes

Quick Summary

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer with only one known cause—asbestos. Being exposed to asbestos can put you at risk of developing mesothelioma. Other risk factors can contribute to your likelihood of developing this disease as well.

Mesothelioma Causes Overview

If you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma or you have a history of working around asbestos, then it’s important to understand the link between the two.

Here’s what you need to know about mesothelioma causes and asbestos exposure:

  • The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure
  • Certain risk factors can increase your chance of developing mesothelioma after asbestos exposure
  • Asbestos exposure has a latency period of 10-50 years before mesothelioma develops
  • Being an older male is one of the highest risk factors associated with mesothelioma
  • The link between asbestos and mesothelioma is known but still being researched

What Causes Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer triggered by asbestos exposure.

Asbestos is the only known contributor to developing mesothelioma in all of its locations:

Because asbestos-containing products are so abundant in our society, it’s vital for everyone to understand that it is the only known cause of mesothelioma worldwide. To understand how asbestos causes mesothelioma, it’s important to consider how mesothelioma cancer cells might form in the first place.

Genetic Cell Mutations in Cancer Formation

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that forms in the mesothelium—the tissue linings that cover and protect organs like the lungs, heart and stomach.

Cancer is a general term used to describe the biological event of healthy cells undergoing genetic mutations and becoming abnormal cells. When these genetic mutations occur, it leads to abnormally high and uncontrolled growth rates of cancerous cells. Left unchecked, cancerous cells continue to spread and infiltrate and destroy healthy tissue.

Mesothelioma Research Update

What researchers don’t yet fully understand is what triggers genetic mutations in cells. Genetic mutations occur when some external factor (not a birth factor) distorts the cell’s DNA, which is held in the cell’s nucleus. As its central computer system, the cellular DNA instructs cells when to divide and when to die off (apoptosis) to continue a healthy cycle of tissue growth. An external trigger can overwrite these DNA instructions, preventing the abnormal cells from dying off when it’s time. If the abnormal cells don’t die off, they continue to replicate themselves, which is what allows them to outnumber healthy cells.

In mesothelioma cancer, mesothelium lining cells turn into mesothelioma cancer cells when they become triggered by asbestos fibers trapped inside the tissue.

In a person with mesothelioma, it’s their asbestos exposure along with other genetic and lifestyle risk factors that are the combination that leads to mesothelioma cell proliferation.

What Is Asbestos?

In addition to being an abundant industrial material, asbestos is also a deadly toxin. Classified by the World Health Organization as a known human carcinogen, asbestos can increase a person’s risk of developing serious diseases, including mesothelioma.

Asbestos is a classification of natural mineral mined from the ground. Comprised of microscopic tinsel-like fibers, asbestos, when handled, can erupt in a cloud of toxic dust that can easily be inhaled or ingested by those nearby.

Asbestos, by nature, is durable and virtually indestructible. That’s why it was so commonly used in construction and industrial capacities throughout the 20th Century. Asbestos is heat-resistant and makes an excellent fireproofing and insulation product.

As such, it was added to common automotive and construction materials in a range of industries, including within the military. Being lightweight, asbestos was also economical, helping deliver higher profits in every industry it served.

Because of its extensive use, asbestos was handled daily by countless industrial and military workers. Anyone directly handling asbestos or working near it could have unknowingly breathed in asbestos fibers at work, inhaling them deep into their lungs, abdomen or heart linings.

Link Between Asbestos and Cancer

Mesothelioma Research Update

Researchers have long known of the link between asbestos and cancer. What researchers still continue to search for is the reason why some people exposed to asbestos develop mesothelioma and some don’t.

When discussing asbestos as being the cause of mesothelioma, it’s important to consider many factors that could account for why asbestos fibers trigger mesothelioma in certain people, including:

  • Gender
  • Genetic factors
  • Patient age
  • Patient health
  • Race
  • Smoking

All of these are known as risk factors, and they may put certain people at a higher risk of developing mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos.

More on other mesothelioma risk factors below.

Asbestos Exposure Risks

Knowing that asbestos exposure is the triggering toxin of mesothelioma cells, we now look at how asbestos exposure occurs and the risks that increase the likelihood of inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers.

The primary asbestos exposure risks occur during occupational activities. However, there are different risk levels when working around asbestos.

These risk levels include:

  • Amount of asbestos exposure
  • Length of time and frequency of asbestos exposure
  • Asbestos work environment, such as being indoors with poor ventilation
  • Type of asbestos involved

In general, people who were exposed to larger amounts of asbestos over a longer period of time are at greater risk of having inhaled or ingested fibers. There’s also a higher risk associated with a certain type of asbestos.

Asbestos Update

While all asbestos is dangerous, crocidolite is the most deadly form of asbestos. Comprised of needle-like particles, crocidolite asbestos is easy to break off and become airborne, ready to be inhaled.

Learn more about Types of Asbestos Exposure.

Risks of Mesothelioma in Asbestos Workers

Occupational risks pose by far the highest threats of asbestos exposure. Asbestos was predominantly used in industrial, construction and manufacturing capacities—sectors that employed millions of people throughout the 20th Century.

Here are a few examples of some of the most at-risk occupations that put workers in danger of asbestos exposure—many of these risks continue today:

  • Asbestos Mines: A primary threat was to the asbestos mine workers themselves. Anyone working on an asbestos mine site would have been directly exposed to raw asbestos on a daily basis as ground-extraction occurred.
  • Asbestos Product Handlers: Asbestos-Containing Materials—or ACMs—are prolific in the construction and manufacturing sectors. Products ranging from drywall to spray-on fireproof coatings to transmission plates contained asbestos as a primary substance for insulation and heat-resistance. Any workers directly handling asbestos-filled parts and products are at risk of developing mesothelioma.
  • Firefighters and Demolition: Because ACMs were used so abundantly in construction, anyone involved in the demolition of old buildings, including firefighters responding to burning structures, were and still remain at-risk of asbestos exposure. When buildings come down whether through controlled demolition or fire, they can send asbestos fibers into the air as part of the destruction.
  • Military Veterans: Certain men and women of the armed forces had extremely high risks of asbestos exposure. Making up one-third of mesothelioma patients, veterans were exposed to asbestos on Navy warships, in military automotive stations and in aircrafts. Vets were also exposed to asbestos in their sleeping quarters, which were constructed with large quantities of asbestos-based insulation and other products.

Learn more about Risks of Occupational Asbestos Exposure.

Other Mesothelioma Risk Factors

In addition to high levels of asbestos exposure, certain health, genetic and environmental risk factors have been studied as potential contributors to increasing a person’s chance of developing mesothelioma after asbestos exposure.

Risk factors like smoking, genetics and patient age and gender can put a person at higher risk of developing mesothelioma if they’ve been exposed to asbestos.

Below are some of the potential risk factors that contribute to a higher likelihood of developing mesothelioma in those who have a history of asbestos exposure:

  • Smoking: The chances of developing mesothelioma are higher in people who have been exposed to asbestos and who are smokers. Different studies have shown that smoking can increase an asbestos-exposed person’s risk of developing mesothelioma by 90%. Likely this risk factor has to do with the overall poor health of smokers and the inflammation and damage that smoking causes to the lungs combined with the damage that asbestos fibers have already caused.
  • Genetics: As mentioned, being exposed to asbestos does not in any way guarantee a person will develop mesothelioma. On the contrary, the vast majority of people exposed to asbestos won’t develop mesothelioma. Therefore, researchers highly suspect there is a genetic component at play—the BAP1 gene. Researchers have isolated a genetic mutation in a gene called BAP1 that possibly increases the likelihood of developing mesothelioma. If someone in your family has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, then your own risk of developing it may be higher.
  • Age and Gender: When you consider where the highest levels of asbestos exposure risks happen, it’s no wonder that older men are more likely to develop mesothelioma than any other demographic. Men were far more likely to work at jobs with high levels of asbestos use than women were throughout the 20th century, which is why being an older male is considered a risk factor for mesothelioma. It’s important to make the distinction that risk factors alone do not lead to mesothelioma. Rather, they are factors that make it more likely that a patient would be unable to protect their body against genetic mutations or cellular damage caused by inhaled or ingested asbestos fibers.

Understanding Your Own Mesothelioma Causes and Risks

Anyone with a known history of asbestos exposure, either at home or work, should carefully monitor themselves and their family members for signs and symptoms of mesothelioma. Symptoms vary by disease location, so it’s important to look into all mesothelioma forms: pleural, peritoneal, pericardial and testicular.

If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and you’ve been left wondering what caused your condition, then it’s important to review your work history to find out what kinds of occupations and products put you in direct contact with asbestos.

Mesothelioma lawyers are investigators who look into the work histories of mesothelioma victims. By working with a mesothelioma lawyer, you collect information about the exact activities from your past that contributed to your developing mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma patients are victims of negligence on the part of unethical asbestos manufacturers who knowingly put workers at risk of health dangers. By learning specific details about how you were exposed to asbestos, you can seek legal compensation for your diagnosis.

Learn more about how asbestos causes mesothelioma and how you can seek the best treatment possible for your exact diagnosis. Contact a Patient Advocate at Mesothelioma Help Now.

View Author and Sources

  1. National Cancer Institute, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 8, 2018.
  2. World Health Organization, “Update of the scientific evidence on asbestos and cancer” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 8, 2018.
  3. Occupation and Environmental Medicine, “Asbestos, smoking, and lung cancer: interaction and attribution” Retrieved from: Accessed on January 8, 2018.

Last modified: January 25, 2019