What is Mesothelioma?

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is the most serious asbestos-related disease, but what are the common symptoms, causes and who is at risk.

The UK first prohibited the use of blue asbestos in 1985 with a final ban on all asbestos use in 1999. Today it is still a significant health hazard to workers and a liability for employers. This article considers the most serious asbestos-related disease: Mesothelioma.

What is Mesothelioma?

What is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is an extremely nasty and permanent cancer that infects the lining of the lungs (pleura) and, less commonly, the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract (peritoneum).  It can be caused by exposure to asbestos dusts of all kinds but especially to blue asbestos (crocidolite)

It is also a very subtle form of cancer providing only a few noticeable symptoms (shortness of breath, or chronic coughing that can easily be confused with allergies or the common cold) until it becomes extremely advanced.

Mesothelioma is almost exclusively related to asbestos exposure, with symptoms taking 20-50 years to appear. In many cases mesothelioma is discovered by accident when doctors are looking into these symptoms.

In most cases, treatment proves to be ineffective but primarily aims to lessen the effects of the symptoms - there is a 100% mortality rate normally within 5 years of diagnosis.

Common symptoms of Mesothelioma

Common symptoms include chronic cough, chest pain and shortness of breath. If you have a history of asbestos exposure and are experiencing any of the above, have a health check-up.

Quit smoking! - Studies show a strong link between smoking and mesothelioma with smokers being 9000% more likely to develop mesothelioma

Causes of Mesothelioma

Approximately 2,500 people in the UK are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year, with men being five times more likely to be diagnosed than women. Most mesothelioma deaths are now a legacy of past occupational exposures to asbestos.

It is believed that 90,000 people in the UK will have died as a result of mesothelioma by 2050.

If asbestos fibres are disturbed they become airborne and can be inhaled.

Asbestos fibres are the right length and diameter to penetrate deep into the air exchange areas of the lungs, and into the pleural cavity.  Here the fibres irritate the lining of the pleura which can cause gene mutations that may result in the growth of cancerous cells and develop into mesothelioma.

Where can you find Asbestos?

Asbestos can still be found in any industrial or residential buildings built or refurbished before the year 2000. It is in many of the common materials used in the building trade that you may come across during your work or find in your home.

 Who is at risk?

Most trades can be exposed to asbestos related hazards especially when working on buildings where the work involves cutting, drilling, demolition etc; so what does the law require you to do?

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 require duty holders to:

Manage asbestos properly in non-domestic properties:

  • Undertake suitable and sufficient assessments in order to identify asbestos (presumption of asbestos/sampling surveys required)
  • Refurbishment/demolition survey before structural work
  • Asbestos management plan – including re-inspection schedule
  • Asbestos register for building
  • Provide information, instruction and training to all employees likely to be exposed to asbestos – not just asbestos removal workers
  • Protect employees and anyone else who may be affected by exposure


The number of fatalities from mesothelioma is unfortunately expected to rise due to the length of time between exposure to asbestos and the onset of the cancer, making it difficult to diagnose.

However, the likelihood of developing mesothelioma is relative to the duration and intensity of exposure to asbestos.

Inadvertent and short-term contact with asbestos means that exposure to fibres will be minimal, with little chance of long-term health issues such as mesothelioma developing. If you are at all concerned then consult your GP.