Asbestos exposure is the cause of mesothelioma. The asbestos fibers cause inflammation and scarring to mesothelial cells and DNA when they get stuck in the lining of the lungs or abdominal cavity. Mesothelioma tumors develop as a result of inflammation, typically decades after the initial asbestos exposure.

How Do You Get Mesothelioma?

The primary cause of mesothelioma is asbestos. About 80% of mesothelioma patients were exposed to asbestos in the past. Malignant mesothelioma develops when inhaled asbestos fibers cause irreversible inflammation, scarring, and cell damage.

All types of asbestos cause mesothelioma.

Diagram showing how asbestos develops into pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma
Diagram of mesothelioma causes by location.

When asbestos fibers travel to different parts of the body, it results in different types of mesothelioma.

For example, pleural mesothelioma is caused when fibers get stuck in the pleura, which is the lining of the lungs. The peritoneal type is caused when fibers are deposited in the peritoneum, which is the lining of the abdominal cavity.

Mesothelioma was virtually unknown until the 20th century. Mesothelioma incidence rates rose as industries expanded the use of asbestos.

Risk Factors for Mesothelioma

The majority of people who get malignant mesothelioma cancer were exposed to asbestos while working certain blue-collar jobs or serving in the military. About 80% of people diagnosed with mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos.


  • Working at an asbestos mine or asbestos-processing plant
  • Working in a high-risk occupation such as construction or heavy industry
  • Serving on military ships or facilities built with products containing asbestos
  • Living in a residential area near an asbestos mine or contaminated site
  • Disturbing asbestos products during a home renovation without proper safety measures

Occupational Asbestos Exposure

The primary risk factor of mesothelioma cancer is occupational asbestos exposure. Construction workers and demolition crews are among the highest at risk due to the thousands of construction materials manufactured with asbestos before the 1980s. These materials are still present in millions of homes and commercial buildings today.

Firefighters have a high risk of asbestos exposure for similar reasons. When fires or natural disasters destroy homes and damage structures, firefighters are among the first people exposed to the toxic fibers released into the air.

Historically, industrial workers, power plant workers, and shipyard crews also risked exposure from asbestos-containing materials in their fields.

Environmental Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos is a naturally occurring group of minerals that form in large deposits. People who live in hilly or mountainous regions risk exposure from asbestos that might naturally release from the earth.

As the mineral mixes with nearby water sources, it can contaminate residential wells and drinking supplies. Asbestos that enters bodies of water can also evaporate and travel as airborne fibers for several miles, polluting residential areas.


Research has shown that mesothelioma incidence is higher among men, but it’s unknown whether there is a genetic component to the disease. The higher prevalence in men may be due to the trend of male-dominated occupations with asbestos risk.

Additionally, patients with mutations in BAP1, a tumor-suppressor gene, have an increased likelihood of developing mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos.


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.


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. Lifestyle factors do not directly affect the risk of developing mesothelioma, but they can affect overall patient survival and treatment options.

Simian Virus 40 (SV40)

In some studies, researchers have identified a possible link between the simian virus 40 and mesothelioma. SV40 was present in contaminated polio vaccines between the 1950s and 1960s, affecting an estimated 10 million to 30 million people.

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 other carcinogens, such as asbestos. More studies are required as researchers have not yet confirmed a definite relationship between SV40 and mesothelioma in humans.


There is evidence to suggest a correlation between some sources of radiation and mesothelioma development. Radiation treatment for other cancers, such as lung or abdominal cancers, may increase the risk of developing mesothelioma. Specific genetic markers may also contribute to this risk, but more research is required.


Erionite, a mineral in the zeolite family formed by volcanic ash and similar to asbestos, has been proven to cause mesothelioma cancer and other respiratory diseases. Erionite is predominant in the Western United States throughout gravel quarries and areas of road construction.

Zeolites are mostly harmless while in the ground until a disturbance releases the fibrous mineral into the air. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has begun to recommend erionite regulations, similar to asbestos directives. Exposure poses a severe risk of mesothelioma in certain erionite-rich regions, such as Turkey.

Is Smoking Tobacco a Risk Factor for Mesothelioma?

Smoking on its own does not increase the risk of developing mesothelioma. However, in combination with asbestos exposure, it can increase the risk of developing mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Cigarette smoking damages structures in the lungs that aid in removing debris and promoting airflow. Over time, mucous, cellular waste, and toxins such as asbestos can build up. This debris can cause decreased oxygen and cellular damage that leads to mesothelioma and other cancers.

Where Does Asbestos Exposure Occur?

Asbestos exposure primarily happens in a workplace setting. It can also happen at home and in the natural environment.

Asbestos was widely used in thousands of commercial, industrial, and domestic products. Examples include drywall, insulation, piping, glues and adhesives, ceiling tiles, cement, and shingles.

Workers who manufactured or used these products were exposed to asbestos on the job. Others, including workers’ family members, faced secondary exposure at home. Environmental exposure happened in communities that mined or processed asbestos.