Causes of Mesothelioma


Mesothelioma and other forms of cancer occur when existing cells within the body undergo genetic mutations, causing them to grow and divide at abnormal rates. In mesothelioma, the only known triggering cause of cellular mutations is asbestos—a human carcinogen used extensively throughout the 20th century.

Mesothelioma Cancer Cells

Your body contains trillions of microscopic cells, each of which has a job to keep you healthy. Some cells fight diseases, while others send signals to nerves, carry oxygen or clump together to form the tissues that make up your muscles, skin, bones or organs. There are approximately 200 different types of cells, and each cell is built to perform a specific task.

All cells are controlled by DNA—genetic chemicals that tell your cells what to do. You are born with all the critical cells your body needs to thrive, and they are continually at work to fulfill their destiny. Like all living things, your cells have predetermined lifecycles (apoptosis) and eventually die, usually reproducing to replace themselves before they do so.

Cells with altered DNA can die off at the wrong time, multiply too quickly and behave erratically. Cells that reproduce at abnormal rates can build up and become cancer, such as mesothelioma.

Cancer works by changing the DNA instructions of a cell. It hijacks your body’s existing workforce and essentially gives your cells new instructions.

What Causes Mesothelioma Cells to Grow?

While cancer researchers have a clear understanding of the cancer process, they don’t know why certain people develop mesothelioma while others don’t. The majority people exposed to mesothelioma risk factors never develop the disease.

It’s unknown what causes the specific biological process (or processes) that triggers abnormal cell growth in some people but not others. It’s the missing link in understanding, preventing and curing mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma Research Update

Scientists continue to research exactly what biological factors cause mesothelioma cells to form and grow, and seek ways to interrupt the process. Some research looks to block the signals that cells use to communicate, while other research investigates chemical interactions that may mutate normal cells into mesothelioma cells.


How Asbestos Exposure Causes Mesothelioma

Asbestos exposure is the single most recognized cause of mesothelioma development. People who previously worked in environments where asbestos was present and disturbed are those who are more likely to receive a mesothelioma diagnosis later in life.

Certain occupations often put workers at risk of asbestos exposure, including:

  • Construction
  • Mining
  • Military
  • Factories
  • Power plants
  • Refineries

Not all asbestos exposure leads to mesothelioma, but it is widely recognized as the most common cause of the disease.

Asbestos often infects the body decades before it results in a mesothelioma diagnosis. In most cases, people working or living with asbestos fibers will unintentionally inhale or swallow microscopic particles throughout the course of their day-to-day lives. These fibers get embedded in the body’s linings and can spread to your lungs, chest, heart, or genital glands.

Once asbestos infects the body, it can begin to mutate healthy cells.

Research has indicated that asbestos interacts with existing healthy cells in 2 ways:

  1. Mitosis: Asbestos damages and mutates cells during the cell division and reproductive process, also known as “mitosis”.
  2. Cellular Mutation: Asbestos mutates existing mesothelial cells through a chemical reaction between oxygen and nitrogen. This mutation results in 1 of 3 mesothelioma cell types, which then begin to multiply throughout the body.

Mesothelioma growth is relatively slow, especially compared to other forms of cancer—it doesn’t tend to show symptoms until its latest stages. At this point, mesothelioma has often had decades to grow and spread, making it challenging to eliminate.

Asbestos to Mesothelioma in 5 Steps

  • Step 1: Asbestos is disturbed, releasing microscopic airborne particles into the air
  • Step 2: Asbestos particles are ingested or inhaled accidentally
  • Step 3: Asbestos particles get lodged in the lining of the lung, heart or abdomen
  • Step 4: The asbestos causes biochemical reactions in nearby cells that mutate cells
  • Step 5: Mutated cells multiply and clump together, forming cancerous tumors

Asbestos Types That Lead to Mesothelioma

There are 2 broad types of asbestos—amphibole and serpentine—categorized by the general appearance of their fibers.

There are 6 subtypes of asbestos:

  1. Crocidolite
  2. Chrysotile
  3. Amosite
  4. Actinolite
  5. Anthophyllite
  6. Tremolite

Serpentine fibers are long and have a curly appearance, with flexible properties that made it a popular choice in products. Serpentine asbestos is less likely to stay lodged in the body’s protective linings and can be broken apart by white blood cells, making it slightly less dangerous. Because serpentine asbestos is less dangerous, it’s the reason so many asbestos-exposed people never form the disease. Chrysotile, or white asbestos, is the only form of serpentine asbestos.

Amphibole asbestos is comprised of short, straight fibers, similar to tiny needles or spears. This shape makes it easy for fibers to become lodged in your internal linings and very challenging for your body to remove. The body’s natural defense system is significantly less effective against the minerals within this asbestos subtype.

Fortunately, because of its brittle nature, amphibole asbestos doesn’t lend well to commercial applications, and most exposure to amphibole asbestos occurs in its natural environment.

While early research suggested that only certain types of asbestos led to mesothelioma, more recent evidence suggests that all asbestos types can cause the disease. Many scientists consider amphibole asbestos to be more dangerous, especially now that commercial use of serpentine asbestos has declined.

Other Potential Risk Factors for Mesothelioma

MJN Brief

Cancer researchers are still trying to determine the exact genetic processes that cause mesothelioma. However, there are several known risk factors considered precursors to the disease in those who have been exposed to asbestos. Most people with risk factors still never develop mesothelioma.


Other mesothelioma risk factors include:

Zeolite and Erionite Exposure

Similar to asbestos, zeolites are comprised of fibrous materials that can increase your likelihood of developing mesothelioma. Erionite is the most recognized zeolite as a risk factor and was directly linked to mass occurrences of mesothelioma in Turkey. Zeolites are naturally occurring, like asbestos.


Radiation for other types of cancer has been linked to mesothelioma occurrences later in life. Researchers believe that abdominal radiation used in various treatment may manipulate cells and cause them to grow unnaturally. Additional radiation risk factors include receiving Thorotrast, a radioactive drug used for x-rays until the 1950’s, and routinely working with low-grade radiation in atomic energy plants.

Carbon Nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes are microscopic nanoparticles that look like tubes. They are extraordinarily strong and can conduct both heat and electricity, and are used in electronics, optics and nanotechnology. While a link between mesothelioma and carbon nanotubes hasn’t been proven, it’s actively being explored as a potential risk factor due to its similarities to asbestos.

Simian Virus 40

Another possible but unproven mesothelioma risk factor is exposure to simian virus 40 or SV40. Up to 30 million Americans may have been exposed to SV40, a virus linked to the development of mesothelioma. SV40 was an accidental infection that was present in some polio vaccinations between 1955 and 1963.

Individual Mesothelioma Risk Factors

Scientists have determined additional risk factors that determine the likelihood of whether asbestos and other potential causes will develop into mesothelioma. Genetics, age, gender and smoking history can all play a role in your likelihood of developing mesothelioma.


There is evidence that some people are genetically predisposed to developing mesothelioma. This connection was observed in Turkey where entire family groups were diagnosed with mesothelioma, triggered by naturally occurring zeolites, while nearby neighbors with the same exposure did not develop the disease.


Mesothelioma typically develops decades after initial exposure, which means you’re more likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma over the age of 65. In fact, one of the greatest mysteries about mesothelioma is why it takes so long to manifest. Mesothelioma cases in people under the age of 45 are extremely rare but do exist.


Cancer researchers have noted that mesothelioma is significantly more likely to occur in men. However, this is likely due to the industries that men typically worked in during the 1930’s through 1960’s. At-risk locations like shipyards, railways, power plants and construction yards were just a few of the areas men were more likely to work in than women.


Smokers exposed to asbestos are twice as likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma. While smoking alone is not a cause of mesothelioma, it can lead to mesothelioma by weakening your lung tissues, preventing your body’s natural cleansing processes, and negatively impacting your overall immune system and health.

How Other Risk Factors Cause Mesothelioma

When mesothelioma was first discovered, researchers believed that asbestos exposure was cancer’s only risk factor. But as time went on, more people began to get the disease without ever having been exposed to asbestos.

Approximately 20% of mesothelioma patients have never had any known notable asbestos exposure. Researchers now recognize that other risk factors may increase your likelihood of developing mesothelioma.

Radiation is thought to cause mesothelioma by mutating cells during and after exposure. Some forms of radiation, like those used in traditional cancer treatments, are designed specifically to destroy cancer cells, but the mutation of healthy cells is always an associated risk.

Zeolites, such as erionite, are thought to cause mesothelioma is a very similar way as asbestos. It’s believed that the airborne, microscopic particles enter the body, burrow into the protective linings of the body, and then trigger biochemical reactions that mutate and destroy healthy cells.

While each risk factor impacts the cells slightly differently, they all follow the same pattern of cell disruption and mutation.

Seeking Legal Compensation for Mesothelioma Causes

If you have a known history of asbestos exposure and you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma, then you may be eligible for legal compensation.

Negligent asbestos manufacturers knew of the health dangers associated with asbestos and continued to distribute it anyway. All mesothelioma patients are encouraged to contact The Mesothelioma Justice Network to discuss your asbestos exposure history with our Justice Support Team.

View Author and Sources
  1. Archives of Pathology. “Mesothelioma Not Associated With Asbestos Exposure.” Retrieved from Accessed on January 6, 2018.
  2. American Cancer Society. “Do We Know What Causes Malignant Mesothelioma?” Retrieved from Accessed on January 6, 2018.

Last modified: April 10, 2018