Risks and causes

There are some factors that can increase your risk of developing mesothelioma. A risk factor is anything that can increase your risk of cancer. A protective factor is anything that lowers the risk of cancer.

Having one or more risk factors doesn’t mean that you will definitely get mesothelioma.

Asbestos

We know that asbestos causes most cases of pleural mesothelioma. This starts in the two sheets of tissue that cover your lungs called pleura. Being exposed to large amounts of asbestos for a long period of time increases your risk of mesothelioma. Many people with mesothelioma in the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma) have also been exposed to asbestos. 

The link between mesothelioma and asbestos was found in the 1960s. This is because of the heavy use of asbestos in industry from the end of the second world war up until the mid 1970s.

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer. In the uk, exposure to asbestos causes:

  • more than 9 out of 10 cases (more than 90%) of mesothelioma in men
  • more than 8 out of 10 cases (more than 80%) of mesothelioma in women

But some people with mesothelioma say they have no history of any exposure to asbestos.

Many people who get mesothelioma because of asbestos exposure might be able to claim compensation. Talk to a solicitor about this as early as possible. Your specialist doctor or nurse might be able to tell you more about this. There are also mesothelioma organisations that can help and advise you.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is an insulating material that’s heat and fire resistant. The use of asbestos was banned in the late 1990s in the UK. It was widely used in:

  • building industry
  • shipbuilding
  • manufacturing of household appliances
  • motor industry
  • power stations
  • telephone exchanges

There are 3 main types of asbestos – blue, brown and white. Blue and brown asbestos are strongly linked with mesothelioma. White asbestos is now also thought to be harmful.

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 can be coughed up and swallowed. This is probably the cause of peritoneal mesothelioma.

There is some evidence that families of people exposed to asbestos have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma. This is because you can carry asbestos fibres home on clothes.

Highest risk groups

Mesothelioma is most common in those who have been exposed to asbestos at work, for example, they have:

  • worked in manufacturing using asbestos
  • used asbestos products, particularly in construction or engineering

This could be in a range of jobs including metal plate workers (mainly in shipbuilding), carpenters, plumbers and mechanics.

Smoking also increases the risk of cancer in people who have been exposed to asbestos.

Mesothelioma may not develop until 15 to 60 years after you have been exposed to asbestos. This is why we have seen an increase in cases in recent years.

The number of people dying from mesothelioma each year was expected to peak around 2020 and then start to go down.

Working as a painter

You might have a higher risk of mesothelioma, if you worked as a painter. This is because up until the 1990s some paints contained asbestos. You might also have been exposed to asbestos in work sites.

Other minerals

In Turkey, a mineral similar to asbestos called erionite, has shown to increase the risk of mesothelioma. But this has not been found elsewhere.

Another mineral called fluro-edenite in Italy, also increases the risk of mesothelioma.

Other possible causes

Stories about potential causes of cancer are often in the media. It isn’t always clear which ideas are supported by good evidence.

You might hear about possible causes we haven’t included here. This is because there is no evidence about them or because the evidence isn’t clear.

Last reviewed: 
26 Jul 2021
Next review due: 
26 Jul 2024
  • Statistical information from Cancer Research UK Statistical team (Cancer Stats)

  • Occupation and cancer - follow-up of 15 million people in five Nordic countries
    E Pukkala and others
    Acta Oncologica. 2009;48(5):646-790. 

  • Domestic asbestos exposure: a review of epidemiologic and exposure data.
    E Goswami and others
    Int J Environ Res Public Health 2013;10(11):5629-70

  • A Review of Human Carcinogens: Malaria and Some Polyomaviruses
    IARC 
    Lyon; 2013

  • Malignant mesothelioma after radiation treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma
    M De Bruin and others
    Blood. 2009 April 16;113(16):3679-81. 

  • Prospective study of mesothelioma mortality in Turkish villages with exposure to fibrous zeolite

    Y Baris

    Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2006 March 15;98(6):414-7.

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular risk or cause you are interested in.

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