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Mesothelioma and Its Relationship to Asbestos Exposure

What is mesothelioma?

Malignant mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that begins in the mesothelium, the membrane that covers and protects most of the body’s internal organs. The mesothelium is made up of two layers, one which surrounds the organ itself, and the other which forms a sac lining around it. A small amount of fluid is normally produced between these two layers, lubricating the movement of the protected organs. When the normal cells of the mesothelium become out of control and spread rapidly, mesothelioma occurs. The most common form of mesothelioma is “pleural” mesothelioma. This occurs in the lining of the lung. Other forms are “peritoneal” mesothelioma, affecting the lining of the abdominal cavity, and “pericardial” mesothelioma, affecting the lining of the heart.

What causes mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos fiber. Many people were exposed in the military; others through their occupation; and still others, secondarily, through contact with exposed workers. Because of the latency of the cancer, it may not appear for 20 to 50 or more years after exposure.

How common is mesothelioma?

Based on information from The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Helsinki, Finland, the incidence of mesothelioma in Western Europe is expected to reach its peak between 2010 and 2020. Following are the statistics on incidence currently available by country.

Cases per year
Cases per million per year
75 (2002)
870 (2000)
1094 (2001)
Great Britain
1862 (2002)
1050 (2000)
389 (2000)
57 (2000)
149 (2003)

Who is at risk for developing mesothelioma?

Those who have worked directly with asbestos or asbestos products carry the greatest risk of developing mesothelioma, however, mesothelioma has been reported in some individuals with minimal exposure.

Trades at high risk for developing mesothelioma include:

  • Metal plate workers (including shipbuilding)
  • Vehicle body builders (including rail vehicles)
  • Plumbers
  • Gas fitters
  • Carpenters
  • Electricians
  • Construction workers
  • Plasterers
  • Builders
  • Handymen
  • Steel erectors
  • Painters
  • Sheet metal workers
  • Welders

What types of products typically contained asbestos?

The following products commonly contained varying degrees of asbestos. This list is not all inclusive, and is meant only as general information.

  • Molded or preformed lagging used in thermal insulation of pipes and boilers
  • Sprayed asbestos used as fire protection in ducts, firebreaks, panels, partitions, soffit boards, ceiling panels and around structural steel work
  • Insulating boards used for fire protection, thermal insulation, partitioning and ducts
  • Asbestos packing used in firebreaks in ceiling voids
  • Millboard, paper and paper products used for insulation of electrical equipment; asbestos paper may also be used as a fireproof facing on wood fiberboard
  • Asbestos cement products in both flat and corrugated sheets used as roofing or wall cladding; cement products were also used in gutters, rainwater pipes and water tanks
  • Textured coatings (such as Artex)
  • Bitumen roofing material
  • Vinyl or thermoplastic floor tile


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The content of this web site is for informational purposes only, and should not be considered as medical advice. Consultation with your doctor is always recommended.