Asbestos Exposure and Mesothelioma

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on May 14, 2023
3 min read

Mesothelioma is a rare, severe cancer that usually affects tissue that lines your lungs. But mesothelioma isn’t caused by smoking. It’s usually the result of exposure to a mineral called asbestos.

Mesothelioma can also cause cancer in tissue around your belly, heart, or testicles.

Most people who get mesothelioma breathed in asbestos at work in certain types of jobs. Asbestos can stay in your lungs for years and cause cancer later on.

Asbestos is a group of natural minerals. It’s made of thin, tiny fibers. It resists heat, chemicals, and fire very well. Because of these qualities, asbestos was used as a fire retardant in buildings and products for many years.

These fibers can float in the air when asbestos is mined, used in a factory to make certain products, or is shaken loose from walls during construction, demolition, or renovation. When you inhale asbestos that’s in the air, it can lead to cancer.

For years, asbestos was used in as many as 3,000 products, including common ones like these:

  • Building and home insulation
  • Roofing materials
  • Flooring
  • Plumbing
  • Fabrics for curtains or upholstery
  • Car parts
  • Paper products
  • Crayons
  • Toys
  • Hair dryers
  • Slow cookers

Links between asbestos and illness date to the 1930s. In the ’70s, its use started to decline. But asbestos is still found in older buildings, homes, and some products.

In 2002, asbestos mining was banned in the U.S., but it’s still imported from other countries for a few uses.

How does asbestos lead to mesothelioma? If asbestos is dislodged from materials where it’s used, the tiny fibers may float in the air. You inhale or swallow them. They settle in the lining of your lungs and stay there. Even years or decades later, asbestos fibers may cause scarring in your lungs that leads to cancer.

Asbestos is strongly linked to mesothelioma. It can also raise your risk of ovarian, colorectal, stomach, pharynx, larynx, and lung cancers.

Cancer is not the only health hazard from asbestos. The fibers may cause scarring in your lungs called asbestosis. This can lead to severe breathing problems and lung damage. Mesothelioma isn’t lung cancer. Instead, it’s a rarer form of cancer in the linings of organs in the chest and abdomen.

Most people who get mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos at their jobs, where they came in close contact with it.

Jobs like these have carried a higher risk of asbestos exposure and mesothelioma:

  • Building construction, demolition, or renovation
  • Installing insulation or drywall
  • Shipbuilding
  • Milling textiles that contained asbestos
  • Mining
  • Car repair
  • Firefighting
  • Building inspection
  • Plumbing, HVAC, or electrical work
  • Carpentry
  • Oil refinery work
  • Hairstyling

There’s no safe level or duration of asbestos exposure when it comes to mesothelioma risk.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned all new use of asbestos in the U.S. in 1989, but established uses were not banned. Strong regulations for building, product, and workplace safety were put in place. Now, asbestos use is highly regulated by federal, state, and local laws.

Today, asbestos may be used in a few products like these:

  • Auto parts
  • Insulation
  • Fireproof clothing for professional firefighters
  • Potting soils

No asbestos is used in any clothing worn by the general public. Any other product of any kind may only contain about 1% or less asbestos.

By law, employers must take steps to lower the asbestos exposure risk for all of their workers. They’re required to keep track of asbestos levels in the air so they never go over the legal limit. Employers must provide protective equipment and train workers how to do their jobs with as little exposure to asbestos as possible.

Because your family could breathe in asbestos that clings to your work clothes, some companies require you to shower and change clothing before you leave the job site if you work around any asbestos.

It may still be inside the walls of older homes and buildings. If you think your home has asbestos, it’s better to just leave it there. If you disturb it, asbestos could get into the air of your home.

If your home is damaged or you want to remodel it, hire an expert to handle the asbestos or remove it. You can also have the air in your home tested just to be sure asbestos levels are low enough to be safe for you and your family.