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Mesothelioma Risk Factors

Unlike other forms of cancer, there is only one primary risk factor for developing mesothelioma – asbestos exposure. So for the thousands of workers who labored in asbestos factories, for the military veterans who worked on ships and submarines and the others who worked in related industries for years, there is a high chance of developing this deadly and rare form of cancer.

For decades, asbestos was regarded as a near-perfect product with thousands of commercial, industrial and home uses. The fibers that makeup asbestos could be woven and mixed into a variety of materials, from fabrics to metals, and create heat- and fire-resistant products. Even though researchers and physicians linked the dangers of asbestos to mesothelioma early on, industries were slow to change.

For those who have passing exposure to unbroken asbestos-containing products, the risk of developing mesothelioma is slim. But for those who lived and worked around asbestos, there is a much greater risk of developing this deadly and rare form of cancer.

Occupational Exposure

Asbestos has been used commercially in the United States since the 1800s, but exploded in popularity during World War II. Shipyards across the Eastern Seaboard utilized the material to make Navy and Merchant Marine battleships, cargo vessels, submarines and aircraft carriers. At its height of wartime popularity, one shipyard alone had more than 50,000 laborers working seven days a week and around the clock to build the vessels. Other branches of the military, as well, so coveted asbestos that it was mandated to be used on all newly constructed vehicles.

Once the war was over, America’s love affair with asbestos went on. By the 1950s, the material could be found in even the smallest of products like hair dryers and flowerpots. The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety said that more than 75 occupations are known for workplace asbestos exposure. These include mechanics, carpenters and hairdressers. Of the long list, miners run the greatest risk for asbestos exposure, followed by shipyard workers, railroad workers and other manufacturing industry laborers. Today, those most at risk are demolition workers, construction crews, first responders and automotive workers. Even schools nationwide are known to harbor potentially deadly asbestos materials.

Mesothelioma and Smoking

Another problematic component to mesothelioma is the addition of cigarette smoking. While smoking alone does not cause mesothelioma, the combination of asbestos exposure and smoking can increase the risk of asbestos-related lung diseases. Research shows that the combination of smoking and asbestos exposure can increase the risk of lung cancer between 50 and 90 percent over smokers who have no asbestos exposure.

Although research has disproven any connection between smoking and mesothelioma, one early brand of cigarettes used asbestos fibers in the filters. From 1952 to 1956, the Kent brand utilized a fiber that contained crocidolite asbestos. In 1954, in the height of its popularity, more than 500,000 packs of Kents were sold each day. Records show that the manufacturer, Lorillard Tobacco Company, knew about the dangers of asbestos but didn’t tell its consumers.

Less Common Risk Factors

At the same time, researchers have found that there are a few other exposure factors that can lead to mesothelioma:

  • Thorotrast – Commonly known as thorium dioxide, this radioactive radiographic contrast agent was commonly used in X-ray testing until the late 1950s. It was later found to be a carcinogen and possibly linked to mesothelioma.
  • Simian Virus 40 – Also called SV40, this DNA virus was first discovered in the 1960s in the kidney cells of rhesus monkeys. At the time, polio vaccines were made from these cells, and an estimated 30 million Americans were exposed to the virus. Some medical research indicates that SV40 is linked to mesothelioma.
  • Zeolite and Erionite – These naturally occurring mineral groups have been found to have properties similar to asbestos and may have a link to mesothelioma.
  • Carbon Nanotubes – Made from sheets of carbon atoms folded into cylinders and used in the emerging nanotechnology industry for building electronic circuits, nanotubes have been linked to mesothelioma.
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