Written By: Karen Ritter, RN BSN

Mesothelioma Causes and Risk Factors

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

Dr. Hassan Khalil

Medically Reviewed By

Dr. Hassan Khalil

Mesothelioma Thoracic Surgeon

Dr. Hassan Khalil

Medically Reviewed By

Dr. Hassan Khalil

Mesothelioma Thoracic Surgeon


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Important Facts About Mesothelioma Causes and Risk Factors

  • Asbestos exposure is the only cause of mesothelioma and the most important risk factor for the cancer.
  • Risk factors around asbestos exposure include: occupation, military service and spouse’s or parent’s occupation.
  • There’s no evidence supporting genetic disposition to developing mesothelioma.
  • The other risk factors around being diagnosed are age and gender, as most cases involve elderly males.

Asbestos Exposure: The Mesothelioma Risk Factor

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

There are multiple types of of asbestos exposure, such as:

Occupational asbestos exposure Icon

Occupational asbestos exposure

Secondary asbestos exposure Icon

Secondary asbestos exposure

Environmental asbestos exposure Icon

Environmental asbestos exposure

Talc asbestos exposure Icon

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

Other risk factors are linked to asbestos, explicitly each type of exposure, which can affect long-term survival after diagnosis.

The risk factors to know about include:

  • Type of asbestos
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Military service
  • Occupation
  • Location of residency
  • Use of a talc product

Some factors are being researched that may contribute to the severity of someone’s mesothelioma symptoms and affect survival rates, such as:

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

How Are People Exposed to Asbestos?

Occupational Asbestos Exposure Icon

Occupational Asbestos Exposure

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

The people commonly exposed to asbestos at work are:

  • Construction workers
  • Automobile repair workers
  • Electricians
  • Boiler workers
  • Plant workers
  • Miners
  • Shipyard workers

Even firefighters are linked to high rates of mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure.

Occupational exposure mostly affects men. 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 cancer. However, people exposed regularly and in large quantities are in more danger. Many occupations put Americans in exposure settings daily.

Secondary Asbestos Exposure Icon

Secondary Asbestos Exposure

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

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

Environmental Asbestos Exposure Icon

Environmental Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, which means it can escape the earth’s surface and contaminate the 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 Libby, Montana.

The Libby vermiculite ore mine was active from 1924-1990. The mine’s owners 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 due to environmental exposure.

Talc Asbestos Exposure Icon

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 inadvertently mix 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. These products are the link between talc asbestos exposure and mesothelioma.

The Types of Asbestos

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

These asbestos types are further broken down into subcategories:

Serpentine asbestos icon

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

Amphibole asbestos icon

Amphibole asbestos — These fibers are rigid and needle-like, which is why they easily puncture cell walls and stick 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. This causes fibers to loosen. Asbestos in its pure form is not dangerous, but the fibers are fragile and can separate from the source.

cancer cells being developed by asbestos

Cancer Developed by Asbestos

Asbestos causes cancer by irritating healthy cells. The fibers disrupt the cells’ DNA and cause them to mutate. This mutation leads to cells replicating at an accelerated pace, which can form tumors. These are clumps of cells.

Asbestos and cancer are linked because asbestos is a carcinogen. This is any substance that causes carcinogenesis (the formation of cancer). Tobacco, for instance, is another carcinogen.

Cancerous cells do not follow the same process as healthy cells. They are incapable of communicating with other cells. As a result, they never receive chemical signals to slow down their division.

Cancer cells lose their sensitivity to anti-growth hormones. The combination of uncontrollable cell division and lack of apoptosis (cell death) results in an unnaturally high number of cells in one area of the body.

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. Mesothelioma takes 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 for women and young adults.

Veterans and Mesothelioma

Veterans are exposed to asbestos and develop mesothelioma more than any 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-resistance, the military used asbestos in hundreds of applications — from insulating naval vessels to insulating barracks.

Many veterans worked as shipbuilders, electricians and steelworkers. They 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 when asbestos was common in construction.

How Do I Take Action Regarding Mesothelioma Risk Factors?

People 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.

If you are diagnosed with mesothelioma, the first step is to find a specialist for treatment. The second step is to find all means of support to help you. There are several compensation options 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.

Sources & Author

  1. Mesothelioma: Causes and Symptoms. WebMD. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/lung/mesothelioma-causes-and-symptoms. Accessed: 10/10/18.
  2. Mesothelioma Symptoms. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mesothelioma/DS00779/DSECTION=symptoms. Accessed: 10/10/18.
  3. Mesothelioma Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment. American Lung Association. Retrieved from: https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/mesothelioma/symptoms-diagnosis. Accessed: 11/17/22.
  4. BAP1, a tumor suppressor gene driving malignant mesothelioma. Translational Lung Cancer Research. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5504107/. Accessed: 07/14/2020.
  5. After 15 years, cleanup plan approved for contaminated Libby, Montana. Seattle Times. Retrieved from: https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/after-15-years-cleanup-plan-approved-for-contaminated-town/. Accessed: 07/14/2020.
  6. EPA recognizes community as Libby cleanup draws to a close. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from: https://archive.epa.gov/epa/newsreleases/epa-recognizes-community-libby-cleanup-draws-close.html. Accessed: 07/14/2020.
  7. Sex Differences in Mesothelioma. Women’s Health Research institute. Retrieved from: http://www.womenshealth.northwestern.edu/blog/sex-differences-mesothelioma. Accessed: 07/14/2020.
Karen image

About the Writer, Karen Ritter, RN BSN

Karen Ritter, a registered nurse, is the lead patient advocate for Mesothelioma Guide. She has a deep passion for patient care, which includes helping patients and their families search for treatment options at the top mesothelioma cancer centers. She finds the balance between encouraging patients to receive the best treatment possible while enjoying their time with loved ones and friends. Karen is a valuable asset for patients due to her knowledge of mesothelioma, compassion for the victims of this disease and dedication to guiding patients through their treatment journey.