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What causes mesothelioma?

Working with asbestos is the major risk factor for mesothelioma. A history of asbestos exposure at work is reported in about 70% to 80% of all cases. However, mesothelioma affects individuals who never worked around asbestos, such as workers’ spouses and children who were otherwise exposed to asbestos from their family members’ person and clothes at home.

Asbestos has been mined and used commercially since the late 1800s. Its use greatly increased during World War II. Since the early 1940s, millions of American workers have been exposed to asbestos dust. Initially, the risks associated with asbestos exposure were not known. However, an increased risk of developing mesothelioma was later found among shipyard workers, people who worked in asbestos mines and mills, producers of asbestos products, workers in the heating and construction industries, and other tradesmen. Today, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets limits for acceptable levels of asbestos exposure in the workplace. People who work with asbestos wear personal protective equipment to lower their risk of exposure. The risk of asbestos-related disease increases with heavier exposure to asbestos and longer exposure time. However, some individuals with only brief exposures have developed mesothelioma. On the other hand, not all workers who are heavily exposed develop asbestos-related diseases.

There is some evidence that family members and others living with asbestos workers have an increased risk of developing mesothelioma, and possibly other asbestos-related diseases. This risk may be the result of exposure to asbestos dust brought home on the clothing and hair of asbestos workers.

Smoking does not increase the risk of mesothelioma. However, the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure significantly increases a person’s risk of developing cancer of the air passageways in the lung.

 
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