Risk Factors for Mesothelioma

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of developing a disease but is not the cause of one. A cause is something that is a direct reason for disease. 

The primary cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Most mesothelioma risk factors involve different sources of asbestos exposure. Researchers are investigating other potential mesothelioma causes.

Proven risk factors for mesothelioma involve different sources of asbestos exposure. 

Products that contained asbestos include construction materials, automotive parts, adhesives, textiles and fireproofing materials.

Primary risk factors for mesothelioma cancer
Primary risk factors for mesothelioma include asbestos exposure, genetics, age, gender and lifestyle choices.

Asbestos and Occupational Exposure 

Many different occupations exposed workers and veterans to asbestos products. Maintenance workers across several industries faced the highest risk of exposure when repairing asbestos-containing parts. 

Some of the most common asbestos products that led to serious exposure risks include insulation, gaskets, valves, adhesives, automotive parts and construction materials. Installing, maintaining, repairing and removing these products put workers at risk of direct asbestos exposure.

Secondhand Exposure to Asbestos

Secondary asbestos exposure occurs after fibers travel on skin, hair, clothes, and tools. These fibers create a risk when workers return home. Secondary exposure can still happen today. Although, it was more common before regulation. 

Spouses and children are most likely to encounter secondary exposure. Children recount hugging their parents when they returned home from work wearing dusty clothes. The primary source of exposure for spouses was doing their loved one’s laundry.

Environmental Asbestos Exposure

Those who live near an asbestos mine or natural deposit are at risk of disease. Microscopic asbestos fibers can linger in the air in these areas. 

There is a history of people taking waste from asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mines. Residents would use it in their gardens and to line their driveways. Some residential areas exist on top of asbestos deposits. One example is El Dorado Hills, California, where people face higher levels of asbestos exposure than the general population. 

Gender and Age

Research has shown that mesothelioma incidence is higher among men. The higher prevalence is likely due to the increased risk among male-dominated occupations.

Age is not a direct risk factor for developing mesothelioma. However, the average age of mesothelioma patients is 69 due to the latency period of the disease. Mesothelioma can take 20 to 50 years to develop after initial asbestos exposure. While older adults are more likely to develop mesothelioma, age itself is not a risk factor.

Lifestyle and Smoking

Lifestyle factors do not affect the risk of developing mesothelioma. They can affect patient survival and treatment options. Good health can help lower the risk of cancer and the side effects of treatment. Healthy habits such as adequate sleep and proper nutrition may also improve prognosis. 

Smoking is often mistaken as a risk factor. Smoking is not a risk factor for mesothelioma. The combination of asbestos exposure and smoking increases the risk of lung cancer.

Family History and the BAP1 Gene

Researchers are investigating whether genetic factors increase the risk of mesothelioma. Genetics may make some people more liable to develop an illness following asbestos exposure.  

Patients with mutations in BAP1, a tumor-suppressor gene, have an increased risk. They are more likely to develop cancer after they have asbestos exposure. It’s unlikely this gene causes cancer on its own.

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Who Is Most at Risk for Mesothelioma?

Those most at risk for mesothelioma are veterans and workers in high-risk industries. Every branch of the U.S. military used asbestos, and so did many other industries. People who work in construction, power generation and insulation installation have higher risks.

Other groups at risk include hobbyists and those living near natural asbestos deposits. These groups have less chance of asbestos exposure than veterans and blue-collar workers. They have a much lower risk of developing cancer as a result.

The time between asbestos exposure and the first signs is about 20 to 60 years. During this time, inhaled asbestos fibers cause damage to cells and DNA that turn normal cells into cancer decades later.

The only way to prevent mesothelioma is to avoid asbestos exposure. 

Veterans and Military Personnel

Every branch of the U.S. armed forces used asbestos products to build bases and housing. The Navy used the most to construct ships and shipyards. The Air Force used asbestos insulation on planes. The Army and Marine Corps utilized asbestos parts in cars and trucks.

Specific jobs placed veterans at a higher risk of asbestos exposure. The riskiest trades were shipyard and boiler workers. These jobs tended to involve direct contact with asbestos-containing products.

Although rare, some active-duty service members develop cancer before they retire. Old asbestos products remain in many military bases around the world.

Family members of veterans can also develop cancer because of secondary asbestos exposure. This occurred when veterans would carry asbestos fibers home on their clothing. Those who lived in military housing were at risk of direct exposure to asbestos products.

Workers in High-Risk Careers

High-risk jobs include those that involve heat, chemicals, electricity or saltwater. Asbestos fibers resist heat, chemical reactions, electricity and saltwater erosion. Asbestos products in these fields were standard for their utility.  

Workers in these occupations faced the highest risk before the 1990s. At that time, asbestos use became less common. Still, these jobs remain at risk of exposure to old asbestos products in buildings and on work sites.

  • Construction Workers: Construction workers handled many different types of asbestos building materials when constructing, repairing or demolishing older buildings. Some new buildings contain asbestos roofing materials.
  • Boiler Workers: Boiler workers installed, repaired and maintained asbestos insulation, valves and gaskets on boilers in buildings and large vessels.
  • Factory Workers: Factory employees worked around asbestos-containing building materials, used asbestos-containing machinery and some even made asbestos products.
  • Firefighters: Firefighters encounter asbestos when responding to fires in older homes and as first responders to natural disasters.
  • Industrial Workers: Industrial workers were at high risk of exposure because asbestos was used to build industrial job sites, insulate industrial machinery and protect workers from heat with asbestos-containing clothing.
  • Insulators: Insulators are among the most at-risk workers for serious asbestos exposure. Insulation contained high amounts of asbestos and installers faced exposure when mixing, applying, maintaining and repairing insulation.
  • Mining: Miners of asbestos endured the most dangerous exposure, and so did miners of minerals commonly contaminated with asbestos, including talc and vermiculite. Other miners encountered asbestos parts on mining equipment.
  • Power Plant Workers: Asbestos materials were widely used throughout power plants in the form of insulation, electrical wiring, electrical panels and more. Workers who repaired these materials faced the highest exposure.
  • Shipyard Workers: Shipyard workers endured dangerous amounts of asbestos exposure because asbestos was used to construct shipyards and vessels. This meant shipyard structures contained asbestos and so did the ships under construction.
  • Textile Mill Workers: Textile mills were made with asbestos building materials and the mill machinery, looms and laundry rooms contained asbestos insulation. Maintenance workers endured the highest amounts of exposure repairing these materials.

Secondary asbestos exposure occurred when these workers brought asbestos home on their clothing. Spouses and children who helped with laundry risked breathing in asbestos fibers. The fibers could also attach to hair, skin and work tools. Close contact, such as a hug, could expose family members.

Hobbyists and DIYers

It is generally rare for hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers to develop mesothelioma. There are cases of this cancer in home auto mechanics. Those who replace brake pads or clutches at home have developed mesothelioma. It remains a risk today because these products still contain asbestos.

It is even rarer for do-it-yourselfers to develop an asbestos disease. Although, enough projects could reach a risk close to that of trade workers. Risky jobs include removing popcorn ceilings and renovation projects on old homes.

Residents near Environmental Asbestos

Residents near natural deposits of asbestos are at an increased risk for mesothelioma. The risk varies depending on the level of disturbance in soil and sediments. Those who live near asbestos mines suffer the most significant cancer risk. 

More than 3,000 Libby, Montana residents have an asbestos-related disease. The risk stems from a vermiculite mine in the town that had contamination with asbestos.

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Unproven Mesothelioma Risk Factors

Researchers continue to investigate unproven risk factors for mesothelioma, including the following.

  • Simian Virus 40 (SV40): Current evidence suggests that exposure to SV40 alone is insufficient to cause mesothelioma in humans. However, the virus may contribute to an elevated risk of mesothelioma in patients exposed to asbestos.
  • Radiation: Research is not conclusive, but there may be evidence to suggest a correlation between some sources of radiation and mesothelioma. Radiation treatment for other cancers, such as lung or abdominal cancers, may increase the risk of developing mesothelioma.

Asbestos exposure remains the primary proven cause of mesothelioma. 

When to Get Screened for Your Mesothelioma Risk

If you’ve had asbestos exposure, you should describe your exposure in detail to your doctor. They can assess your mesothelioma risk. Early diagnosis and treatment of mesothelioma can improve life expectancy.

Consider a second opinion from a specialist. They will order tests that identify lung cancer or mesothelioma. These tests can look for signs of developing asbestos-related diseases.

Common symptoms of mesothelioma include difficulty breathing, chest pain, fatigue or abdominal pain. The symptoms can appear like the flu and other common diseases.

Tests for mesothelioma include imaging scans, blood tests and biopsy tests. The cancer is usually first detected with an imaging scan. Only a biopsy can provide an official diagnosis.