The World Health Organization defines risk factors as “any attribute, characteristic or exposure of an individual that increases the likelihood of developing a disease or injury.” While every mesothelioma risk factor may not directly cause the disease, they can greatly increase a person’s chances of developing it. Regardless of the conditions, however, it’s important to remember that no two people are alike and being at risk of mesothelioma does not necessarily mean one will contract it. Conversely, those with no known risk factors could one day be diagnosed with it. In the end, one’s best course of action is to understand these risks and to make informed decisions that will best affect their long-term health.
Causes and Risks
Mesothelioma is most commonly associated with exposure to asbestos. For years, asbestos was referred to as the “miracle mineral” because there were so many uses for it. It was a key component in all manner of construction materials and used to manufacture a wide variety of products. Even for those whom asbestos exposure wasn’t an occupational hazard, contact with the substance was extremely commonplace. Asbestos’ widespread use in the United States ended only a few short decades ago. However, it is still often used in other parts of the world. This means there are millions of people right now who are at increased risk of developing mesothelioma. Those who work in construction or have served in military bases still containing asbestos, as well as oil refinery workers and firefighters are at an increased risk of developing the disease.
Asbestos is naturally occurring, meaning those who live near asbestos deposits or near closed asbestos mines are at an increased risk of being exposed to it. Fairfax County, Virginia, and various parts of southern Nevada are two places with significant asbestos deposits. In the early 1970s, when asbestos mining reached its peak, there were more than 140 asbestos mines operating across the United States.
Age and Gender
Mesothelioma has been found to be more common in men than women. Because the disease takes several years to manifest, those under 45 are rarely affected.
While the risk of mesothelioma increases drastically the more one is exposed to asbestos, it’s always possible those individuals will never develop the disease. And while it often takes many years for mesothelioma to manifest, there have been cases in which people have been diagnosed after only brief exposure to the substance. Doctors are continually studying the causes behind mesothelioma, but say that some individuals may be genetically predisposed to contracting it.
Researchers have found that those receiving radiation therapy for the treatment of other forms of cancer have a slightly higher chance of developing mesothelioma. However, with little evidence to support this, they’re still trying to determine if there’s a concrete link between the two.
Simian Virus 40
SV40 is a DNA virus that can cause tumors in animals. Some polio vaccines were contaminated with the virus in the 1950s, and it has since been found in human mesothelioma tumors. However, doctors are still working to establish a clear connection between the two.
These are naturally occurring minerals found in areas where volcanic rocks and ash come into contact with saline water. Synthetic zeolites are used in products such as laundry detergent and kitty litter. When zeolite particles become airborne and are inhaled, they can lead to mesothelioma.
How Does Mesothelioma Develop?
Mesothelioma gets its name from the mesothelial cells which line the chest and abdomen cavities in the body. Pleural mesothelioma, which accounts for roughly 80% of all diagnosed cases of the disease, occurs in the lining of the lungs when asbestos fibers are inhaled and become lodged there. Peritoneal mesothelioma occurs when asbestos fibers are digested and become lodged in the abdomen. In very rare cases (fewer than 50 diagnosed each year) mesothelioma develops in the lining of the heart. This is known as pericardial mesothelioma.
Researchers have no definitive answer on how asbestos causes cancer in mesothelial cells. However, they have several theories as to why this may be the case. One of these posits that asbestos fibers cause inflammation in mesothelial cells, scarring them and eventually leading to cancer. Another says that asbestos causes genetic changes in these cells, which then cause cancer. The underlying principle to all of these theories is that asbestos in some way interrupts a cell’s natural processes. Once that happens, they grow uncontrollably, cause tumors, and develop into mesothelioma.
There is no surefire way to prevent mesothelioma. As mentioned before, taking precautions doesn’t guarantee one won’t be diagnosed with the disease at some point in their life. Complicating matters further is the fact that, because it can take decades for mesothelioma symptoms to even surface, it can often go undiagnosed until it becomes more serious and effective treatment less likely. Common symptoms of mesothelioma, such as fatigue, fever, or coughing can be mistaken for the flu or pneumonia. With this in mind, the best method for “preventing” mesothelioma is to regularly visit your doctor so, should warning signs begin to show themselves, they can be identified early and a treatment plan put in place.