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Mesothelioma and the Environment

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer which is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is the name given to a group of minerals that occur naturally in the environment as bundles of fibers that can be separated into thin, durable threads. These fibers are resistant to heat, fire, and chemicals and do not conduct electricity. For these reasons, asbestos has been used widely in many industries.

Being exposed to asbestos particles in the air is the major risk factor for mesothelioma. This type of cancer happens when harmful, or malignant, cells develop in the protective lining that covers most of the body's internal organs. The most common sites for mesothelioma are in the chest or belly, where cells become abnormal in response to asbestos fibers that have embedded in

  • the outer lining of the lungs or chest cavity,
  • the lining of the abdominal cavity (belly), or
  • the sac that surrounds the heart.

As the link between asbestos and mesothelioma became clearer in the late 1970s, use of asbestos went down, and most use stopped by 1989. Experts believe that mesothelioma incidence rates are not going up because of the drop in asbestos use after this link to cancer was discovered.

Exposure and Risk

The main risk factor for developing mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. Most cases of mesothelioma have been linked to asbestos exposure in the workplace. This exposure may result from the following:

  • mining or milling materials,
  • fireproofing the superstructures of building or ships,
  • maintaining railroad or automotive brakes,
  • insulating pipes and ductwork,
  • release of materials to the air by water or demolition,
  • being near a road paved with crushed serpentine stone, and
  • handling the work clothes of asbestos miners or millers.
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The best way to reduce your risk of mesothelioma is to limit your exposure to asbestos in homes, in public buildings, and at work.

If you live in an older home, there may be insulation with asbestos or other materials. An expert should check your home to find out if there is any asbestos, whether it poses any risk to you, and if so, the best way to take care of it. If there is a chance you might be exposed to asbestos at work, then you should use all protective equipment and follow safety procedures for working around asbestos. For more information, please visit The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

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