Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that most often affects the lungs, but can also develop in the stomach and thoracic cavities. The leading cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, a toxic mineral mined and manufactured into common household and commercial products. People have also developed mesothelioma from exposure to naturally occurring asbestos deposits across the United States and other parts of the world.
What Causes Mesothelioma?
The primary cause of malignant mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring minerals that causes mesothelioma after prolonged exposure. Coming into contact with any amount of asbestos, however, puts people at risk of developing cancer and other related diseases.
Due to its durable and fire-resistant nature, the United States widely used asbestos throughout the majority of the 20th century. Parts of the world still use new asbestos products today. Although the United States no longer manufactures asbestos, the mineral still remains in older buildings, military property, and homes across the nation.
The widespread use of asbestos over decades exposed millions of Americans, putting them at risk of developing mesothelioma. Individuals exposed decades ago can still develop mesothelioma as it often takes 20-50 years for symptoms to appear.
How Much Exposure to Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma?
There is no safe amount of asbestos. Asbestos fibers become airborne when disturbed, by humans or natural events. Once the fibers become airborne, they can enter the body in two ways – inhalation or ingestion. Over time, lodged asbestos fibers irritate the tissue, causing inflammation and scar tissue, and potentially mesothelioma tumors.
The risk of developing mesothelioma increases with greater exposure to asbestos. But due to the size and shape of the asbestos fibers, trace amounts can find their way into the body and cause mesothelioma. Small amounts of asbestos attached to clothes and skin are enough to cause mesothelioma by secondary exposure.
There are six forms of asbestos that cause the different types of mesothelioma. The most common forms of the mineral are chrysotile and amphibole. Chrysotile asbestos fibers appear white and curly, while amphibole asbestos fibers appear straight and often brown.
Asbestos Containing Materials and Products
A variety of everyday products can contain both types of fibers, including:
- Brake pads
- Electrical wiring
- Fireproof blankets and clothing
- Floor tiles
- Piping materials
- Roofing and shingles
- Talcum powder
How to Prevent Mesothelioma
Avoiding exposure to asbestos can prevent mesothelioma. Coming into contact with asbestos is not always possible to avoid. Generally, asbestos is not dangerous unless disturbed. Following proper safety regulations, like wearing protective clothing and breathing gear.
Individuals that suspect asbestos in their homes should avoid disturbing the materials. Only an official asbestos inspection by a professional can determine exactly where asbestos may be present. Avoiding asbestos can also help prevent other diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and ovarian cancer.
What Causes Mesothelioma Other Than Asbestos?
Asbestos is the only proven cause of mesothelioma, causing at least 80% of all cases. Researchers believe there could be other factors that may increase the risk of developing mesothelioma, such as radiation treatment for other cancers, genetics, and minerals similar to asbestos (erionite and zeolite).
Although asbestos is the only proven cause of mesothelioma, other risk factors may increase the chances. Mesothelioma is not a form of lung cancer, but smoking can increase the risk of developing both diseases.
Related: President Joe Biden recently announced plans to cut the lung cancer death rate by 50% through the Cancer Moonshot Initiative.
Occupational Asbestos Exposure
Occupation is the primary reason people come into contact with asbestos and develop mesothelioma. As a fireproofing material, asbestos was primarily used in the workplace setting and in the military. Thousands of different commercial, industrial, and domestic products contain asbestos.
At the height of asbestos consumption, families of workers were also at risk. Often, workers from various industries came home with asbestos fibers on their hair, work clothes, shoes, and tools. This exposed family members to the carcinogen and increased their risk of developing mesothelioma.
If you think a past job exposed you to asbestos, you should talk to your doctor and ask to be monitored for signs of mesothelioma before symptoms appear. Early detection offers the best opportunity for effective mesothelioma treatment and increased life expectancy.
Environmental Asbestos and Chemical Exposure
Although environmental asbestos exposure only accounts for a small number of mesothelioma cases, people in areas where natural asbestos occurs are at an increased risk of developing cancer.
Large deposits of asbestos in hilly or mountainous regions were common places for mining in the 20th century. The small town of Libby, Montana was declared a superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2009, due to thousands of residents being diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases after exposure to natural deposits.
Asbestos can become dangerous after environmental disasters. Fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other severe events can damage old homes, sending millions of tiny asbestos fibers into the air, and exposing people and animals.
What to do if you have Mesothelioma
If you are experiencing symptoms of mesothelioma and have a history of asbestos exposure, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss the next steps. Generally, patients experiencing mesothelioma symptoms with a history of asbestos exposure will undergo screening for the disease. CT imaging and other tests can determine if mesothelioma is present.
This form of cancer is aggressive, but treatments are available to reduce symptoms and help extend the survival rates for mesothelioma survivors. After receiving a mesothelioma diagnosis, the next steps involve working with a doctor to develop a treatment plan. The expenses of lung cancer or mesothelioma treatment can depend on various factors, including insurance, veterans benefits, and legal claims.