Mesothelioma Risk Factors

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure, and exposure to this mineral is the most prevalent risk factor of the disease. Those directly exposed to asbestos who have inhaled or ingested the toxic fibers are at a greater risk for developing an asbestos-related disease, but secondary exposure can also result in the development of mesothelioma. Secondary exposure to asbestos can occur when a person worked around asbestos all day and brought the mineral into the home on clothing or the body, exposing family and friends to the toxic mineral.

Occupational Risk

The earliest and most common commercial and industrial uses of asbestos occurred in building materials. Asbestos was first used as a roofing material in the mid-1800s and eventually was utilized in everything from steam pipe lagging to wallboard and insulation. This placed many workers at risk of asbestos exposure. Specific occupations that frequently were exposed to asbestos include: insulators, boilermakers, auto mechanics, railroad employees, construction workers, shipyard workers, electricians, pipefitters, plumbers, steamfitters, power plant and chemical plant employees and welders.

Unfortunately, although most uses of asbestos in construction have been phased out since the 1980s, there thousands of old buildings across the United States and Canada full of asbestos. This means that almost anyone who has worked in a construction-related occupation is potentially at risk for mesothelioma. This also applies to those who simply worked in such buildings. Schoolteachers for example suffer from relatively high rates of asbestos disease in the United Kingdom, and it is not uncommon to find it among U.S. educators as well.

Those who worked in the metal fabrication industry, on the railroad or in pulp and paper mills may have been exposed to asbestos to some degree. Those who worked in virtually any heavy industrial occupation have generally been exposed to asbestos to the greatest degree.

Ships and the Navy

There are few things more frightening to sailors than a fire at sea. If not controlled quickly, fires can consume a vessel and trap people below deck. One fire aboard a cruise ship in September 1934 that led to the use of asbestos aboard sea-going vessels on a massive scale for more than 45 years. Naval and civilian vessels were full of asbestos from stem to stern and from the bilge to the crow's nest, although most asbestos insulation was found in the engine and fire rooms well below decks.

Incidentally, military asbestos exposure was not limited to those in the Navy or those who worked in shipyards; it was commonly used in structures and other vehicles as well. Veterans comprise 30 percent of mesothelioma patients.


Mesothelioma is not known to be caused by tobacco use however, it appears that a cigarette smoker who is exposed to asbestos runs a risk of developing mesothelioma that is 90 percent greater that a non-smoker similarly exposed. Anyone with asbestosis should not smoke because this asbestos-related illness combined with the risk of smoking greatly raises the risk of developing mesothelioma.

Environmental Exposure

Finally, there are certain regions of the country in which asbestos is mined and/or occurs naturally in the ground. Libby, Montana is possibly the most infamous. W.R. Grace & Company carried out their asbestos mining operations in this town for decades. To date approximately 200 Libby residents have died from mesothelioma.

Sometimes, asbestos is disturbed as a result of residential development. This is the case for the community of El Dorado Hills, a suburb of Sacramento, California, which sits atop a large deposit of serpentine, one source of asbestos. Recently, construction activities have disturbed the rock and contaminated the community's air with asbestos fibers.

Those who are concerned about naturally-occurring asbestos should consult the U.S. Geological Survey, which has identified several locations in North America were asbestos may be located.

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