Asbestos Exposure Causes Mesothelioma

The main cause of mesothelioma cancer, or malignant mesothelioma, is asbestos exposure.1 In people who develop mesothelioma but were never exposed to asbestos, the cause of the tumor is unknown.2

How does asbestos cause mesothelioma?

When asbestos fibers are inhaled they can damage the lungs or be swallowed. Inflammation of the tissues leads to scarring and uncontrolled cell growth, causing cancer.1 But mesothelioma is not the only disease causes by asbestos exposure — asbestosis (scarring of the lung) and lung cancer are also common among people who were heavily exposed to asbestos.3

Direct and secondary exposure

Asbestos was used in a number of industries until the 1980s and in a number of products, including insulation, gaskets, roofing, floor tiles, fireproofing and brake pads. Individuals working with the material were at risk of direct exposure to the fibers.3

High-risk jobs for exposure to mesothelioma were:2,4

  • Construction
  • Shipbuilding
  • Plumbing
  • Electrical
  • Automobile industry
  • Appliance manufacturers

Exposure to blue or brown asbestos (or amphibole) is most commonly linked to mesothelioma, though all forms of the mineral can be inhaled and potentially cause disease.2,3

Sometimes people who were not directly exposed to asbestos develop mesothelioma from secondary exposure. A family member who worked with asbestos may have carried the dust home on their clothing, exposing others to the fibers. Also, people who lived near asbestos factories may have been exposed through the environment, and people who work in buildings where asbestos was used (and subsequently disturbed or damaged) may also be exposed.2

Risk factors for mesothelioma

Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos gets mesothelioma. Some people are at a higher risk of developing the disease. Some risk factors1 include:

  • Genetics, especially genes involved in cell regulation
  • SV40 infection
  • Radiation treatment of other cancers
  • Being male, though this is probably due to the occupational hazards2

Asbestos can take decades to actually cause mesothelioma cancer, so the incidence of mesothelioma increases with age. Two-thirds of mesothelioma patients are over the age of 65.3

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