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Mesothelioma risks and causes

Men and women discussing mesothelioma

This page is about the risk factors and possible causes of mesothelioma. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Mesothelioma risks and causes

Mesothelioma is quite a rare cancer but it is becoming more common. In the UK mesothelioma is much more common in men than women. 

Asbestos

By far the main cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. It is estimated that in the UK more than 9 out of 10 men with mesothelioma and more than 8 out of 10 women with mesothelioma have been in contact with asbestos. Your risk is greater if you were exposed to large amounts of it from an early age for a very long period of time. But some people say they have no history of any heavy exposure to asbestos.

Other risk factors

In people who have been exposed to asbestos, contact with a virus called SV40 may make it more likely that they will develop mesothelioma but this is not certain. There is some evidence that exposure to radiation radiotherapy treatment or from a chemical called thorium dioxide (Thorotrast) may raise mesothelioma risk. But the evidence is not very clear. A mineral found in Turkey called erionite, and working as a painter, may raise the risk.

 

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How common mesothelioma is

Mesothelioma is quite a rare cancer, but it is becoming more common. More than 2,500 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the UK each year. There are about 5 times as many cases in men as in women. This is probably because many cases have been caused by exposure to asbestos at work. Mesothelioma in the chest (pleural mesothelioma) is much more common than mesothelioma in the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma).

 

Asbestos

We know that asbestos causes most cases of pleural mesothelioma. The risk is greater if you were exposed to large amounts of it from an early age for a very long period of time. Many people with peritoneal mesothelioma have also been exposed to asbestos. 

We have known of a link between asbestos and lung disease since the beginning of the 18th century. But the link with mesothelioma has only been known since the 1960's. Unfortunately, the number of cases of mesothelioma in the UK each year is expected to rise sharply for the next few years because of the heavy use of asbestos in industry from the end of the second world war up until the mid 1970s.

It is estimated that in the UK more than 9 out of 10 men with mesothelioma and more than 8 out of 10 women have been in contact with asbestos. But some people say they have no history of any exposure to asbestos.

Remember that many people who develop mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure may be able to claim compensation. It is important to talk to a solicitor about this as early as possible. Your specialist doctor or nurse may be able to give you some information. Or some of the mesothelioma organisations can help and advise you.

 

What asbestos is

Asbestos is an insulating material that is heat and fire resistant. In the past, asbestos was used widely in the

  • Building industry
  • Ship building industry
  • Manufacture of household appliances
  • Motor industry
  • Power stations
  • Telephone exchanges

So most cases of mesothelioma occur in men who have worked in manufacturing using asbestos or who have used asbestos products, particularly in construction or engineering. A UK study showed that risks are particularly high for metal plate workers (mainly in shipbuilding) and carpenters, and the risk is higher in people exposed to asbestos before the age of 30. This study estimated that 1 out of 17 British men born in the 1940s and employed in carpentry for more than 10 years before the age of 30 would go on to develop mesothelioma. People who worked as plumbers or mechanics also have an increased risk. 

Asbestos was widely used in the years after the war (after 1945). Mesothelioma may not develop until 15 to 60 years after you have been exposed to asbestos, which is why we have seen an increase in cases in recent years. The number of people dying from mesothelioma each year is expected to peak around 2016 and then start to go down.

There are three main types of asbestos – blue, brown and white. Blue and brown asbestos are strongly linked with mesothelioma. They have been banned since the late 1980's and cannot be imported into the UK. White asbestos is now also thought to be harmful. The use of all asbestos was banned in 1999 in the UK.

 

How asbestos causes mesothelioma

Asbestos is made up of tiny fibres. You can breathe these fibres in when you come into contact with asbestos. The fibres work their way into the pleura, lining the lung. They irritate the pleura and may cause gene changes (mutations) that lead to the growth of cancer. Some of the fibres that have been breathed in can be coughed up and swallowed. This is probably the cause of peritoneal mesothelioma.

If you have been exposed to asbestos, your family may also have been exposed. Asbestos fibres can be carried home on your clothes. Research studies have confirmed that the families of people exposed to asbestos also have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma.

 

The SV40 virus

Research has looked into a virus called SV40 (the SV stands for simian virus). In people who have been exposed to asbestos, some studies have shown that contact with the SV40 virus makes it more likely that they will develop mesothelioma. So SV40 is thought of as a possible co factor for mesothelioma development. But this is not completely clear.

Some people have been found to be exposed to polio vaccines contaminated with SV40 virus between 1955 and 1963 in some countries, including Britain. 

 

Radiation

Pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma has been shown to develop after exposure to radiation from a chemical called thorium dioxide (Thorotrast). This chemical was used until the 1950's in some X-ray tests.

Some studies show an increased risk of mesothelioma in people treated with radiotherapy for a previous cancer. But other studies show no increased risk. If radiotherapy does increase the risk of mesothelioma, this is likely to occur only in a very small number of people.

 

Other chemicals

A mineral found in Turkey called erionite (a type of Zeolite fibre) has been shown to cause mesothelioma. 

Working as a painter has been linked with an increased risk of mesothelioma possibly due to chemicals in the paint.

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Updated: 15 January 2014