Last modified: September 21, 2021
What Are Risk Factors?
A risk factor is something that may increase your chance of having a disease but may not be a direct cause of the disease. A cause is the primary factor that leads to a disease.
For example, a family history of lung cancer is a risk factor for the disease, but lung cancer is not inheritable, and smoking remains the primary cause of lung cancer.
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, such as exposure to radiation and the SV40 virus, but asbestos exposure is the only proven cause of the rare cancer.
Asbestos exposure does not mean you will get mesothelioma. However, it may increase your risk. It’s always a good idea to discuss this with your health care provider.Karen SelbyRegistered Nurse and Patient Advocate
Who Is Most at Risk for Mesothelioma?
Veterans of the U.S. armed forces and workers in high-risk industries such as construction, power generation and insulation installation are the most at-risk groups for developing mesothelioma. That’s because every branch of the U.S. military used asbestos and so did many other industries, ranging from mining to manufacturing.
Other groups at risk of mesothelioma include hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers and people living near naturally occurring asbestos deposits. These groups tend to experience significantly less asbestos exposure than veterans and workers in high-risk careers, and they have a much lower risk of developing the cancer as a result.
The latency period between initial exposure to asbestos and the development of mesothelioma averages between 20 and 50 years. During this time, inhaled asbestos fibers slowly cause damage to cells and DNA that eventually results in normal cells turning cancerous 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 Air Force used asbestos insulation on aircraft, and the Army and Marine Corps utilized asbestos parts in automobiles. The Navy used more asbestos products than any other branch to construct ships and shipyards.
Certain jobs placed veterans at higher risk of asbestos exposure. Shipyard workers, laggers, firefighters, boiler workers, mechanics, maintenance workers and repairmen tended to work directly with asbestos-containing products.
Although rare, some active-duty service members are diagnosed with mesothelioma before they retire from the military. Old asbestos products remain in many military bases and barracks throughout the U.S. and internationally.
Family members of veterans have been diagnosed with mesothelioma because of direct and secondary asbestos exposure. Those who’ve lived on bases and resided in military housing were at risk of direct exposure to asbestos products. Veterans who worked with asbestos have also brought home asbestos fibers on their clothing, causing secondary exposure among their loved ones.
Workers in High-Risk Careers
Jobs that required employees to work around heat, chemicals, electricity or saltwater often used asbestos products because asbestos fibers are resistant to heat, chemical reactions, electricity and saltwater erosion.
Workers in the following occupations faced the highest amounts of exposure before the 1990s, but they remain at risk of exposure to old asbestos products in buildings and on job 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.
Family members experienced secondary asbestos exposure when these workers brought asbestos home on their clothing. Spouses and children who helped with laundry were at the greatest risk of breathing in asbestos fibers.
Hobbyists and DIYers
It is generally rare for hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers to develop mesothelioma, but cases have been reported in home auto mechanics. Those who replace their own brake pads or clutches at home have developed mesothelioma, and it remains a risk today because these products still contain asbestos.
It is even rarer for do-it-yourselfers to develop mesothelioma. However, those who regularly use this work as a form of supplemental income may perform enough jobs to reach a risk level close to that of carpenters or construction workers. Common risky DIY jobs include removing popcorn ceilings, tearing down walls and flipping older homes during quick renovation projects.
Residents near Environmental Asbestos
Residents living near naturally occurring deposits of asbestos are at an increased risk for mesothelioma. The risk varies depending upon how much the deposit is disturbed. Those who live near asbestos mines suffer the greatest risk of asbestos-related diseases.
For example, more than 3,000 residents of Libby, Montana, have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases stemming from an asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine in the town.
Risk Factors for Mesothelioma
The proven risk factors for mesothelioma involve different sources of asbestos exposure.
Asbestos exposure primarily occurs in the workplace at high-risk job sites and through handling asbestos products. Common job sites that put workers at risk for asbestos exposure include construction sites, industrial job sites, factories, power plants and chemical plants.
Products that contained asbestos include construction materials, automotive parts, adhesives, textiles and fireproofing materials.
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 happens when someone who works with asbestos brings the fibers home on their skin, hair, clothes, shoes and tools. Secondary exposure can still happen today, but it was more common before the 1970s when government agencies began to regulate asbestos.
Spouses and children are most likely to encounter secondary exposure. Children recount hugging their parent 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
Living near an asbestos mine or asbestos deposit puts people at risk because microscopic asbestos fibers can linger in the ambient air in these areas.
There is a history of people taking waste from asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mines to use in their gardens and to line their driveways. Residents living in towns built on top of asbestos deposits, such as El Dorado Hills, California, face higher levels of asbestos exposure than the general population.
Gender and Age
Research has shown that mesothelioma incidence is higher among men. Researchers believe the higher prevalence in men is because of the increased asbestos risk among male-dominated occupations.
Age does not directly impact the risk of 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, but they can affect patient survival and treatment options. Good overall health can help lower the risk of cancer and minimize the side effects of treatment. Healthy habits such as adequate sleep and proper nutrition may also improve a mesothelioma prognosis.
Smoking is not a risk factor for mesothelioma, even in combination with asbestos exposure. Smoking gets mistaken as a risk factor for mesothelioma because the combination of asbestos exposure and smoking significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer.
Family History and the BAP1 Gene
Researchers are investigating whether genetic factors are a risk factor for mesothelioma. Mesothelioma has occurred in family members who were all exposed to asbestos, which prompted researchers to study whether genetics may make some people more susceptible to developing an illness following asbestos exposure.
Patients with mutations in BAP1, a tumor-suppressor gene, have an increased likelihood of developing mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos. Researchers do not believe that this gene causes mesothelioma on its own. Rather, researchers have noticed that a select few people with a history of asbestos exposure carry mutations of the gene.
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.
- Erionite and Zeolites: Erionite, a mineral in the zeolite family and similar to asbestos, has been associated with mesothelioma cancer and lung cancer. Zeolites are mostly harmless while in the ground until a disturbance releases the fibrous mineral into the air.
Asbestos exposure remains the only proven cause of mesothelioma.
When to Get Screened for Your Mesothelioma Risk
If you’ve ever been exposed to asbestos, you should describe your exposure in detail to your doctor so they can assess your mesothelioma risk. Early diagnosis and treatment of mesothelioma helps to improve life expectancy.
Your doctor may recommend that you seek yearly cancer screenings or regular checkups with a specialist to look for signs of developing asbestos-related diseases such as pleural mesothelioma and peritoneal mesothelioma.
Common symptoms of mesothelioma include difficulty breathing, chest pain, fatigue or abdominal pain and bloating.
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.
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