How Does Asbestos Cause Mesothelioma?

Quick Summary

Exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma. Depending on a set of patient risk factors, asbestos may trigger mesothelioma when inhaled or ingested. Exposure happened most commonly in the workplace but also occurred in other environments.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a toxic mineral compound that is extracted from the ground and used in a variety of industries and products.

Asbestos was in wide use during the 20th century for its practicality and durability, and its cancer-causing health risks eventually became well-known.

Measures were taken in many countries first to reduce asbestos usage and later to ban it. However, asbestos is still found in some buildings and products today.

Types of Asbestos

There are three main types of asbestos, and all are known to cause mesothelioma:

  • Chrysotile (white): Chrysotile asbestos is the most common type used in construction and consumer products. Chrysotile fibers are white, long and curly. It is classified under the serpentine category.
  • Crocidolite (blue): Crocidolite asbestos is considered the deadliest form due to its fibers (blue and straight) that break off easily and become airborne. The sharp fibers are quickly trapped in the mesothelium (tissue linings) when inhaled. It is classified under the amphibole category.
  • Amosite (brown): Amosite asbestos, with its straight and brown fibers, is found most often in buildings. Like crocidolite, amosite fibers are sharp and easily trapped in the mesothelium. It is classified under the amphibole category.

Three additional types of asbestos fall under the amphibole category: anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite. They are cancer-causing like all forms of asbestos. These types are no longer used in commercial applications, but former miners or handlers should contact a mesothelioma specialist for a consultation.

How Was Asbestos Used?

The mining, production, and usage of asbestos have drastically declined since the 1980s. However, asbestos was in high demand during the preceding decades for industrial and commercial products, and some of those buildings and products remain today. Its resilient and versatile nature made asbestos a popular material in a variety of applications.

Some uses included:

  • Construction materials: The most common asbestos use was in building construction. Its resistance to hot and cold temperatures, along with its soundproofing quality, made asbestos ideal for insulation (ceiling, flooring, walls, and pipes). Flooring, such as tiles, roofing products like shingles, as well as cement and plaster also used asbestos.
  • Household appliances: Appliances like ovens, laundry machines, hair dryers, small kitchen appliances and irons use asbestos for heat resistance.
  • Automobile parts: Asbestos is still found today in some brake pads, gaskets, clutches, valves and other automotive parts.

Other heat-resistant products like blankets, rope and firefighter suits were made using asbestos.

How Was I Exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos exposure happens in two ways: primary exposure (direct contact with asbestos) and secondary exposure (contact with another person who has had primary exposure).

Primary Asbestos Exposure

Primary asbestos exposure is the most common way of inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers. This exposure can happen when handling asbestos directly or spending time in an environment with asbestos.

Asbestos Risk in the Workplace

Workers who handled asbestos or worked in an environment with asbestos are at the highest risk of exposure.

Some high-risk occupations include:

  • Asbestos mining & production: Working directly with asbestos put these employees at high risk of inhaling the fibers that break off when handled.
  • Construction & demolition: Construction workers installing insulation, flooring, roofing, pipes (including pipefitting) or simply working at a construction site are at risk for asbestos exposure. Also at risk are demolition workers who inhale asbestos fibers during building destruction and clean-up.
  • Automotive production & repair: Autoworkers were—and continue to be—at risk for inhaling asbestos found in brake pads, transmissions and other auto parts.
  • First responders: Firefighters, paramedics and police officers who respond to building fires and collapses face exposure risk when asbestos fibers enter the air upon the building destruction.

Since asbestos was a common construction material in many buildings, some of which had crude, exposed interiors, environmental asbestos exposure may of concern to people who worked in the following areas:

  • Navy, shipbuilding & maritime industries
  • Oil refineries & power plants
  • Railroads
  • Sand & gravel production
  • Steel manufacturing

Asbestos Risk at Home

If you have an older home with an attic—especially one with exposed insulation—do not use the area for storage and instruct family members to avoid it.

Renovation Safety

Homes constructed before the 1980s may contain asbestos. While the existence of asbestos is not itself a hazard, disturbing the asbestos fibers could cause exposure. Therefore, always hire a professional to test your home for asbestos before undergoing renovations.

Seal cracks in drywall, around doors and windows, and around outlets and light fixtures where asbestos fibers may be released. Better yet, have your home asbestos-tested for your family’s health and peace of mind.

Asbestos Risk in Schools

Many schools were built before the 1980s and may contain asbestos. As mentioned, the existence of asbestos is not necessarily a risk, but schools showing deterioration could make students and teachers vulnerable to asbestos exposure.

Teachers and parents should look for any signs of damage or extensive wear, such as cracked walls or damaged ceiling tiles. School management is then required to produce an asbestos declaration or investigate the problem.

Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Secondary asbestos exposure happened when people who work with or around asbestos came into contact with other people. For example, some asbestos plant workers came home in their work clothes, and their loved ones inhaled the toxic fibers.

People at risk of secondary exposure include family members and friends, co-workers from different departments and other close, long-term contacts of asbestos workers.

Steps In Mesothelioma Formation

Mesothelioma manifests in the tissue linings of organs like the lungs, stomach, and heart.

Here is a step-by-step process of how asbestos exposure progresses into mesothelioma:

  • Asbestos Exposure: Asbestos fibers are usually inhaled and affect the lining of the lungs. In some cases, they may be ingested and affect the abdominal lining.
  • Tissue Penetration: When inhaled or ingested, the sharp asbestos fibers become stuck in the lungs, chest wall or abdominal wall.
  • Genetic Cell Mutation: When trapped inside the body, the fibers disrupt the natural cellular process. That disruption causes genetic mutations in the cells and continued mutations through prolonged exposure to asbestos eventually turn healthy cells into cancerous ones.
  • Tumor Growth: If a cell continues growing and collecting mutations, it may form into a tumor. Tumor growth in the lung lining is called pleural mesothelioma; tumor growth in the abdomen is called peritoneal mesothelioma. In rare cases, cancer can also develop in the lining of the heart, called pericardial mesothelioma.
  • Metastasis: Metastasis occurs when cancer cells spread beyond the tumor’s original location to other parts of the body.

The latency period of mesothelioma is 10–50 years.

Seeking Treatment for Mesothelioma and Asbestos-Related Diseases

If you were exposed to mesothelioma—directly or indirectly—at any point in your life, monitor your health for mesothelioma symptoms. Inform your doctor immediately if you notice any signs or symptoms, and then contact a mesothelioma specialist for a second opinion.

Should you be diagnosed with mesothelioma, a specialist will review your case and recommend a treatment plan tailored for you.

It is vital to determine the origin of your asbestos exposure. In the case of asbestos exposure causing mesothelioma, you may be legally justified in applying for compensation. An experienced mesothelioma lawyer will help you collect the information necessary to build a claim while helping you navigate the legal procedures.