Asbestos exposure: The primary risk factor for mesothelioma

Asbestos is a mineral that's found naturally in the environment. Asbestos fibers are strong and resistant to heat, making them useful in a wide variety of applications, such as in insulation, brakes, shingles, flooring and many other products.

When asbestos is broken up, such as during the mining process or when removing asbestos insulation, dust may be created. If the dust is inhaled or swallowed, the asbestos fibers will settle in the lungs or in the stomach, where they can cause irritation that may lead to mesothelioma. Exactly how this happens isn't understood. It can take 30 to 40 years or more for mesothelioma to develop after asbestos exposure.

Most people with years of asbestos exposure never develop mesothelioma. And yet, others with very brief exposure develop the disease. This indicates that other factors may be involved in determining whether someone gets mesothelioma or doesn't. For instance, you could inherit a predisposition to cancer or some other condition could increase your risk.

Possible risk factors

Factors that may increase the risk of mesothelioma include:

  • Personal history of asbestos exposure. If you've been directly exposed to asbestos fibers at work or at home, your risk of mesothelioma is greatly increased.
  • Living with someone who works with asbestos. People who are exposed to asbestos may carry the fibers home on their skin and clothing. Exposure to these stray fibers over many years can put others in the home at risk of mesothelioma. People who work with high levels of asbestos can reduce the risk of bringing home asbestos fibers by showering and changing clothes before leaving work.
  • A monkey virus used in polio vaccines. Some research indicates a link between mesothelioma and simian virus 40 (SV40), a virus originally found in monkeys. Millions of people may have been exposed to SV40 when receiving polio vaccinations between 1955 and 1963 because the vaccine was developed using monkey cells. Once it was discovered that SV40 was linked to certain cancers, the virus was removed from the polio vaccine. Whether SV40 increases the risk of mesothelioma is a point of debate, and more research is needed.
Oct. 24, 2012

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