Mesothelioma Risk Factors

Cancer researchers and mesothelioma experts are still trying to determine what causes mesothelioma. While the specific triggers may not be known, numerous risk factors are recognized and known to the scientific community. Risk factors increase your likelihood of developing mesothelioma and should be avoided whenever possible.

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Mesothelioma Risk Factors Explained

Some risk factors, such as genetics, gender, and age, are beyond your control. These risk factors are important to recognize because they can help you and your doctor identify and diagnose mesothelioma at earlier stages when it’s easier to treat.

Other risk factors, including all lifestyle risk factors, are preventable. You can make life choices to avoid these risk factors and reduce your chances of developing mesothelioma or other similar cancers.

Environmental Risk Factors

Unfortunately, most of today’s mesothelioma patients have the cancer because of environmental risk factors, and one in particular—asbestos exposure. While we are aware of these risk factors today, many of the hazards were not known until the mid 20th century. Cancer researchers continue to educate the world about mesothelioma risk factors in hopes of eliminating mesothelioma for future generations.

Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos exposure has been identified as the single biggest cause of mesothelioma in the United States. Approximately 80% of mesothelioma cases are directly linked to recurring exposure to asbestos earlier in life.

Asbestos is the categorical name given to six different minerals that develop as fibrous bundles. The minerals are naturally occurring in rocks and deposits throughout the world, and their flexibility, durability, tensile strength and low electrical conductivity makes asbestos a popular material for a wide range of products. Asbestos is best known for its use in insulation, but it can also be found in roofing, mechanical and a wide range of industrial applications.

You can develop mesothelioma when you inhale or ingest asbestos fibers. These fibers can become embedded in your mesothelium, or protective tissues, and then cause the surrounding cells to mutate over time. These mutated cells then divide and spread through the body, and the resulting disease is called mesothelioma.

People at the greatest risk of developing mesothelioma are those who have been exposed to high levels of asbestos for significant periods of time. This risk does not appear to diminish over time, and asbestos remains a risk factor long after exposure has stopped. Fortunately, most people exposed to asbestos will never develop mesothelioma.

Zeolite & Erionite Exposure

Zeolites are a type of mineral, with similar properties to asbestos, that is linked to the development of mesothelioma. One zeolite called erionite was extensively studied in the successful search for a “mesothelioma gene.” It was discovered that at least one genetic mutation resulted in mesothelioma within entire family groups when they were exposed to naturally occurring erionite.

Zeolites have strong purification, adsorption and catalytic properties, which make them a popular choice for many commercial and household products. The United States Geological Survey currently recognizes approximately 40 naturally occurring zeolites, which can be found in rocks and ashes, and an additional 150 synthesized zeolites. Natural zeolites are often used in animal feet, pet litter and purification applications, while synthetic zeolites are commonly used in detergents.

Carbon Nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes haven’t been proven as a mesothelioma risk factor yet, but they are under scrutiny because of their similarities to asbestos. Carbon nanotubes are microscopic nanoparticles shaped like tubes, used in nanotechnology, optics and electronics because of their excellent electrical conductivity.


Radiation used in the course of cancer treatment has been linked to the later development of mesothelioma. It’s believed that the same radiation that kills cancer cells can sometimes cause healthy cells to grow in unnatural ways.

Other forms of radiation have also been linked to mesothelioma, including ongoing low-grade exposure to atomic radiation energy. You are also at risk of developing mesothelioma if you received the radioactive drug Thorotrast, which was used for x-rays until its dangerous side-effects were discovered in the 1950s.

Polio Vaccination / SV40 Virus

If you received a polio vaccination between 1955 and 1963, you might be at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma if you were also exposed to asbestos. While polio vaccines are considered safe, an outbreak of similar virus 40 (SV40) in monkeys accidentally made it into millions of vaccinations. Polio vaccines were created from monkey cells, and an accidental outbreak caused the disease to spread. SV40 is a DNA virus that alters the genetic composition of cells.

Recent research has also discovered SV40 in children and young adults, who were never exposed to the vaccine, suggesting that the virus continues to spread to this day. SV40, therefore, remains a risk factor for mesothelioma, even for those who didn’t receive the infected polio vaccine.

Lifestyle & Other Risk Factors

While limited research has been done on lifestyle risk factors for mesothelioma specifically, there has been an abundance of research into how lifestyle impacts cancer risk in general. Individuals who maintain healthy lifestyles are at a lower risk of developing cancer. The World Cancer Fund estimates that 20% of all cancer is preventable and can be eliminated through smart lifestyle choices.

It’s important to note that these lifestyle risk factors alone do not contribute to mesothelioma. Rather these risk factors put asbestos-exposed people possibly at a greater risk of developing mesothelioma after their exposure.

Poor Nutrition & Health

Cancer researchers have noted that people who don’t smoke and eat at least five servings of fruits and veggies each day have a lower risk of developing lung cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and regular exercise is one of the best ways you can control this risk factor and minimize the likelihood that you’ll develop mesothelioma in your lifetime.


The American Cancer Society recommends that men drink a maximum of 2 drinks per day, while women should only drink a maximum of 1 alcoholic beverage. One beverage is considered 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof hard liquor or 5 ounces of wine. Drinking more than this amount on a regular basis is a risk factor for developing cancer.


Smoking does not cause mesothelioma in and of itself, but individuals who smoke are twice as likely to develop the disease. Smoking causes significant damage to the lungs, damaging your tissues and preventing your body’s ability to protect and heal itself. This damage to your lungs makes it harder for your body to fight off pleural mesothelioma cells and is therefore considered a risk factor for the disease.

In addition, researchers have found a potential link between smoking and the BAP1 gene mutation that increases your likelihood of developing mesothelioma.

Uncontrollable Risk Factors

Several mesothelioma risk factors are beyond your control, but it’s important to be aware of them. Having multiple risk factors makes it more likely that you will develop mesothelioma within your lifetime. Therefore, being aware of even the uncontrollable risk factors can help you diagnose mesothelioma at early stages, which can significantly improve prognosis.


Mesothelioma, like all cancers, is caused by genetic conditions that cause certain cells to mutate and overgrow. Some people are naturally predisposed to these genetic conditions, carrying genes or other biological markers that make their cells more likely to mutate later in life.

One example is the BAP1 gene mutation which has been identified in some families and has been linked to the development of mesothelioma, eye melanoma, and other cancer. When this particular BAP1 mutation is combined with certain environmental risk factors, such as chronic asbestos exposure, mesothelioma is likely to develop.


Mesothelioma is typically found in individuals over the age of 60 and scientists believe this is due to its unusually slow growth. While it typically takes mesothelioma two or more decades to develop, there are exceptions. Mesothelioma has been diagnosed in children and young adults. However, mesothelioma tends to develop in older people, making age a risk factor.


Men are more likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma, likely due to their increased exposure to asbestos when compared to women. Men often work in fields that put them in direct or indirect contact with asbestos, including military work, trades, and construction, while women are less represented in these occupations. Gender is therefore considered a risk factor for mesothelioma.

Have you been diagnosed with mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos? You may be entitled to compensation. Talk to our Justice Support Team today to learn more.

Author:Stephanie Kidd

Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network

Stephanie Kidd

Stephanie Kidd works tirelessly as a dedicated advocate for the vulnerable and underrepresented. Stephanie worked as a copywriter for an agency whose focus was communicating safety procedures on construction work sites. With her extensive background in victim advocacy and a dedication to seeing justice done, Stephanie works hard to ensure that all online content is reliable, truthful and helpful.

Last modified: January 23, 2020

View 5 Sources
  1. American Cancer Society. “What Are The Risk Factors for Malignant Mesothelioma?” Retrieved from Accessed on January 16, 2018.
  2. American Cancer Society. “ACS Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention.” Retrieved from Accessed on January 16, 2018.
  3. American Cancer Society. “Diet and Physical Activity: What’s the Cancer Connection?” Retrieved from Accessed on January 16, 2018.
  4. U.S. Geological Survey. “Asbestos: Geology, Mineralogy, Mining, and Uses.” Retrieved from Accessed on January 16, 2018.
  5. U.S. Geological Survey. “Zeolites Statistics and Information.” Retrieved from Accessed on January 16, 2018.
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