Mesothelioma Causes and Risk Factors

Exposure to asbestos fibers is the only proven cause of mesothelioma. There are risk factors associated with asbestos that can increase your chances of developing this cancer.


Written by Jenna Campagna, RN


Fact Checked


Asbestos Exposure: The Main Mesothelioma Risk Factor

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, originally admired for its unique insulating and fire-retardant capabilities. Asbestos was prevalent in numerous occupations, including construction and insulation work. Asbestos was present in many 20th century buildings, including homes and offices.

There are four primary methods people are exposed to asbestos:

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Occupational asbestos exposure

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Secondary asbestos exposure

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Environmental asbestos exposure

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Talc asbestos exposure

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Find out where you may have been exposed to asbestos

A nation wide list of sites where you or a loved one may have come in contact with asbestos.

Other Mesothelioma Risk Factors

The other risk factors are in some way linked to asbestos, explicitly the asbestos exposure methods. These can affect a person’s chances of long-term survival after diagnosis.

The risk factors you should know about include:

  • Type of asbestos
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Military service history
  • Occupation
  • Location of residency
  • Consistent use of a talc product

Some often-discussed mesothelioma risk factors are still being researched. They include:

  • Genetics
  • Previous lung disease or history of respiratory conditions
  • Smoking

How Are People Exposed to Asbestos?

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Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Occupational asbestos exposure is the most common type of exposure. Those working in industrial occupations frequently worked with materials containing asbestos.

Construction workers, automobile repair workers, electricians, boiler workers, plant workers, miners, and shipyard workers were among those most commonly exposed to asbestos on the job.

Even the firefighter occupation is linked to high rates of mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure. Occupational exposure mostly affects men, as they were the primary occupants of these jobs. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 81% of mesothelioma cases involve men.

The more someone is exposed to asbestos, the higher the risk of mesothelioma. Any amount of exposure could result in this cancer, but people exposed regularly and in large quantity to the carcinogen are in more danger. Many occupations put Americans in exposure settings daily, which is why this exposure method is the most dangerous.

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Secondary Asbestos Exposure

Secondary exposure occurs when people are exposed through others, such as loved ones or friends. People working in high-exposure jobs would bring loose asbestos fibers into the home, either on their clothes or body. Their spouse, children, parents or close friends would be exposed when in close contact.

Secondhand exposure most often affects women, as they were most likely to be in contact with people carrying asbestos into the home. Women would wash asbestos-ridden clothes.

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Environmental Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, which means it can escape the earth’s surface and contaminate the air in an environment. Those who lived near large deposits of asbestos may have been exposed through water run-off or mining projects. The most notable example of environmental asbestos exposure is in Libby, Montana.

The Libby vermiculite ore mine was active from 1924-1990. During that time, the mine’s owners compiled and shipped asbestos while hoarding the substance in the town, which polluted air and water quality.

More than 2,500 Libby residents died of asbestos-related diseases simply due to where they lived.

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Talc Asbestos Exposure

Talc, like asbestos, is a naturally forming mineral in the earth’s surface. It is found nearby asbestos and mining efforts can cause inadvertent mixing of the two.

Talc is ground into talcum powder, which can absorb moisture on skin. It’s a primary ingredient in many cleansing and beauty products, including Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder. There is a link between talc asbestos exposure and mesothelioma through the use of these products.

The Types of Asbestos

There are two main types of asbestos: serpentine and amphibole. Serpentine asbestos is generally less friable than amphibole asbestos, which is more dangerous when inhaled or swallowed.

These asbestos types are further broken down into subcategories:

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Serpentine asbestos — These wavy white fibers comprise a majority of all asbestos found in buildings. The primary subtype is chrysotile, which can still be dangerous and cause mesothelioma.

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Amphibole asbestos — These fibers are rigid and needle-like, which is why they can easily puncture cell walls and stick themselves into tissue. The subtypes are amosite, tremolite, actinolite, anthophyllite and crocidolite.

How Does Asbestos Cause Cancer?

Asbestos causes cancerous tumors due to a multi-step process involving biology. First, though, asbestos must be disturbed and fibers loosened. Asbestos in its pure form is not dangerous, but the fibers are fragile and can easily separate from the source.


Airborne microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested.


The fibers become stuck in the protective lining of either the lungs, abdomen, heart or testes.


The trapped fibers irritate the mesothelial cells, causing genetic mutations.


The mutated cells accumulate and form into tumors, which grow and replicate.

Age and Gender

Age and gender are two of the primary mesothelioma risk factors. Mesothelioma most often affects elderly people (ages 60 and older) and men.

Age is a risk factor due to how long mesothelioma takes to form. This length of time is called the mesothelioma latency period. Mesothelioma takes between 20-50 years to form and show symptoms, which can be mistaken as signs of a common cold or pneumonia.

Due to this amount of time, most patients don’t develop mesothelioma until decades after their asbestos exposure occurred. They’re likely in their 50s, 60s or 70s, either retired or nearing retirement.

However, there are examples of mesothelioma victims in their 20s and 30s. Numerous studies link talc exposure and secondhand exposure to mesothelioma cases involving women and young adults.

Veterans and Mesothelioma

Veterans are exposed to asbestos and develop mesothelioma more than any other group. Between one-third and half of mesothelioma patients are military veterans, mostly of the Navy.

Asbestos wasn’t widely known as harmful until the 1970s and 1980s. Due to its low cost and fire-resistant benefit, asbestos was used in hundreds of applications in the military — from insulating engine rooms in naval vessels to insulating barracks.

Many veterans who worked as shipbuilders, electricians and steelworkers developed mesothelioma from occupational exposure during their service. Even military members who didn’t regularly handle asbestos were still in its vicinity, which was a mesothelioma risk factor.

An independent investigation uncovered that military housing units for family members included decaying, undocumented asbestos. These buildings were likely built in the 20th century when asbestos was common in construction.

How Do I Take Action Regarding Mesothelioma Risk Factors?

People who were exposed to asbestos should know the symptoms of mesothelioma. If you experience some or all of them, such as difficulty breathing or pain in the chest or stomach, contact a physician right away. The first step to detecting mesothelioma is imaging tests, such as an X-ray.

If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, the first course of action is to find a specialist who can treat you and improve your prognosis. The second step is to find all means of support to help you through your fight with mesothelioma. There are several compensation options for people with mesothelioma to pay for treatment, travel, lost wages and other hardships.

We can help you with both steps. Contact one of our patient advocates today to get the support needed to fight this cancer.

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