How Long Does Mesothelioma Take to Develop?
Mesothelioma takes decades to develop — usually 20 to 60 years. According to a 2022 study, levels of asbestos exposure and latency are inversely proportional. In other words, the more asbestos exposure a person has, the shorter their latency period. People who have years of exposure to asbestos typically develop mesothelioma more quickly than those with brief or low-level exposure.
- A latency period of less than 15 years is rare.
- The longest documented latency period is 60-70 years.
- The median latency period is 40 years.
- Peritoneal mesothelioma has a latency period of 20-40 years.
- Pleural mesothelioma has a latency period of 30-60 years.
The majority of people who receive a mesothelioma diagnosis are in their 60s or 70s. This is because cancer develops decades after asbestos exposure.
People usually do not receive a mesothelioma diagnosis until common symptoms of the disease become nagging or debilitating. The most frequent symptoms are persistent coughing and difficulty breathing.
Factors That Impact Mesothelioma Latency Period
Research shows that asbestos exposure is the primary factor in disease latency. The duration and intensity of exposure will likely determine how long until mesothelioma develops. Exposure to specific types of asbestos fibers can shorten the latency period.
There are six different types of asbestos. Each one has distinct fibers with different uses. Crocidolite, or blue asbestos, is made up of extremely thin fibers. This may contribute to it being more deadly than other types of asbestos with a shorter latency period. Crocidolite may also cause higher rates of peritoneal mesothelioma.
Research shows that the type of exposure affects latency. People who have worked in factories that produce asbestos or asbestos-containing products have a shorter latency period than people who have worked in asbestos mines or lived near a mine.
Duration and Intensity of Asbestos Exposure
Long-term exposure to asbestos or exposure to high levels of asbestos — even for a short time — can lead to a shorter latency period. The total amount of asbestos you are exposed to may have the largest effect on mesothelioma latency.
People who have worked in industries with long-term exposure, such as insulation workers, can have latency periods of less than 30 years. First responders are one group that can have short-term, high-level exposure. Many paramedics, firefighters and police officers who worked in the aftermath of 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina developed mesothelioma from short-term exposure.
How long of an exposure is enough to cause mesothelioma? Chuck Gast told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com all it took was six weeks for him. In 1973, while working as a teacher, he took a summer job to make extra money.
“For approximately six weeks, I worked in an industrial furnace factory,” Gast said. “The furnace insulation was asbestos, so I was directly involved with it, getting it all over me.”
It was 40 years after this short period of exposure that doctors diagnosed both him and his former wife with mesothelioma. Those in close contact with someone who works with asbestos can also be at risk from asbestos as fibers and dust can be brought home on clothing.
Specific jobs can expose workers to very high concentrations of asbestos. More than 75 occupations put workers at risk of asbestos exposure. Depending on the profession, exposure can be long-term or high in asbestos concentration. In these cases, the latency period is likely to be shorter.
Working in certain industries carries a high risk of dangerous asbestos exposure:
- Asbestos mining and processing
- Boiler maintenance
- Power plants
- Textile mills
Chuck Gast had exposure to very high levels of asbestos during his summer job.
“I was 27 years old and never thought something like this would come back to haunt me,” he said. “That’s one job I should have never taken.”
At his job, he would regularly handle asbestos, packing it into furnaces by hand and working with asbestos bricks, breathing in fibers from the air in the factory. His main symptom, fluid around the lungs, did not appear until 40 years after his exposure.
Secondhand asbestos exposure occurs when one person transfers asbestos fibers to someone else. This can happen when workers have fibers on their bodies or clothing. Secondhand asbestos exposure can be just as dangerous as firsthand exposure.
People who work with asbestos may bring the toxic fibers home on their work clothes and shoes. Secondhand exposure poses a threat to family members, especially if they handle contaminated items. This low level of asbestos exposure tends to have a more extended latency period than direct exposure.
Three years before his mesothelioma diagnosis, Chuck Gast’s former wife, Melva, was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. Her exposure to asbestos was secondhand.
“I brought the [asbestos] fibers home on my clothing and she would launder my clothes,” Gast said.
Her symptoms did not develop until almost 40 years after her six-week exposure to asbestos, Gast said. According to one of his doctors in Toledo, it is extremely rare for two people in the same household to have a mesothelioma diagnosis.
Characteristics Associated with Mesothelioma Latency Period
The duration and intensity of asbestos exposure is, perhaps, the most significant factor affecting the latency period, but other factors also play a role. Patient age, gender and cancer location are characteristics that can affect the latency period. All of these factors interact in complex ways that doctors don’t yet fully understand.
Mesothelioma latency can vary greatly between individuals despite having similar exposures. Cheryl Pilkington and Tamron Little both faced exposure to asbestos as young children, but they developed mesothelioma differently. Pilkington told the Mesothelioma Center that her pleural mesothelioma diagnosis came 60 years after her repeated exposure to asbestos at her father’s workshop.
Little, on the other hand, had exposure to asbestos as a toddler and developed peritoneal mesothelioma at a young age.
“I was just 21 years old when I was told I had peritoneal mesothelioma,” she told The Mesothelioma Center. “Being diagnosed so young is a rarity, and I knew nothing about the disease. I didn’t even know where to start. Research information that was available to me at the time gave a bleak outlook, plus I didn’t fit the description of the typical mesothelioma patient.”
Although they had comparable exposures at similar ages, these two women developed different types of mesothelioma with very different latency periods.
The location in the body where mesothelioma occurs affects latency. Researchers estimate that pleural mesothelioma is the form with the most prolonged latency. It can take 30 to 60 years to develop. Meanwhile, the latency period for the peritoneal form is shorter, falling between 20 and 40 years.
One study in Australia showed that peritoneal mesothelioma had a significantly shorter latency period than pleural mesothelioma. In this study, men and women both had an average latency of about 44 years for pleural mesothelioma, but latency for peritoneal mesothelioma was under 30 years for women and 38.8 years for men.
Gender may also play a role in determining latency. Some studies suggest that women tend to have a longer mesothelioma latency than men, but this can vary based on the location of the cancer. Researchers hypothesize that this is a result of lower exposure levels in women. However, the latest data show that the number of mesothelioma deaths has increased significantly for women in recent years, despite lower occupational exposure.
Men have more history of asbestos exposure on the job. This is especially true for construction, power and factory occupations. These jobs exposed workers to heavy concentrations of asbestos for long durations. Based on these factors, latency in men is likely to be shorter than in women.
Women may have greater secondhand asbestos exposure than men. These lower exposures can last for shorter periods, which is likely to correlate with a longer latency period. However, research has identified asbestos-contaminated talc in cosmetic products as a source of asbestos exposure in women. This may affect latency data because asbestos exposure may be much longer.
Some research suggests that age at the time of asbestos exposure may impact latency. This can be due to several age-related factors.
According to a study from the U.K.’s Committee on Carcinogenicity, exposure to asbestos at age 5 is five times more likely to result in mesothelioma than exposure as an adult at age 30. Exposed children may be more susceptible to developing mesothelioma later in life due to differences in lung function and immune function between children and adults.
Children’s lungs and immune systems are still developing. Developing lungs may be more susceptible to damage from asbestos, and a developing immune system may not be able to clear the body of asbestos as well as an adult. Children also have a longer life expectancy than adults. Assuming an average latency of 40 years, a 5-year-old is more likely to develop mesothelioma than a 30-year-old adult.
Additionally, immune system function declines as people age. Older bodies may have more difficulty removing asbestos fibers and repairing organ damage. This may increase people’s risk of developing mesothelioma as they age. Another factor affecting latency may be genetic predisposition. People with specific mutations in certain genes may have a shorter latency period.
Latency Period and Mesothelioma Diagnosis
Symptoms of mesothelioma may not appear until the cancer is in stage 3. The earliest signs are shortness of breath, chest pain and fatigue. Asbestos exposure occurred 20 to 50 years ago in most cases. Many patients overlook their distant past when considering possible causes of their illness. This often leads to an initial misdiagnosis.
Delayed onset of symptoms and late diagnosis contribute to a poor mesothelioma prognosis. Survival improves with a diagnosis at earlier stages. Aggressive treatment can lead to cancer remission in some cases.
Some people can receive a mesothelioma diagnosis at surprisingly young ages. Alyssa Hankus was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma when she was only 15.
“My doctors told me it takes at least 15 years to present symptoms, but I actually started showing symptoms around age 12,” she told The Mesothelioma Center.
After receiving very aggressive treatment, Hankus has been in remission for over 15 years. She does not take life for granted.
“It’s all a part of that continued fight of making it and achieving all of the things that at 15 I was told I never would,” she said. “Those little day-to-day simple joys are what mean so much, because those were never promised to me.”
Importance of the Mesothelioma Latency Period
Mesothelioma’s long latency period can make it difficult to diagnose and treat. Many patients and doctors may not associate present-day symptoms with potential exposures from many decades ago. Additionally, symptoms may not appear until the cancer has reached an advanced stage, limiting treatment options.
It is important to discuss any past possible exposure to asbestos with your doctor. If you have had exposure to asbestos and are experiencing symptoms, talk to your doctor about testing for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Asbestos exposure still occurs today. Earlier this year, a fire at a warehouse in Indiana resulted in asbestos debris raining down on the surrounding area — including 16 schools and 10 day care centers. Asbestos is still present in many buildings, including public schools in Philadelphia. Only recently have companies pulled potentially contaminated talcum powder from the market, meaning that cases of mesothelioma from exposure are likely to continue for many decades.
Because of the long latency period, mesothelioma rates are unlikely to decline for years to come. If you have had exposure to asbestos at any point in your life, you have an increased risk of mesothelioma. Knowledge is power, so learn all you can about asbestos exposure and your mesothelioma risk.