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The History of Asbestos Use and the Link Between Asbestos Exposure and Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that affects the tissues surrounding your organs. The primary cause of mesothelioma is known to be asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a generic term used to refer to a variety of naturally occurring fibrous minerals. These fibers are found naturally in some deposits in the earth and they have several industrial and commercial uses. Since asbestos is resistant to heat, fire, chemical reactions, and does not conduct electricity, it used to be widely used in fireproofing, insulation, sound proofing, cement, and for many construction coatings and materials. Let us take a closer look at the history of asbestos use and how it relates to the development of mesothelioma.

History of Asbestos

The resilient properties of asbestos made it a highly sought-after and useful tool for centuries. It is believed that asbestos was first used by the Greeks for its durability. They started spinning asbestos fibers into cloth to use as tablecloths and blankets. The ancient Romans even used asbestos in the wicks of ceremonial candles.(1)


While the use of asbestos was known for centuries, but it was only in the late 19th century that huge deposits of asbestos were discovered in certain parts of the northern United States and Canada. After this, asbestos became a commonly used construction material. Due to the relatively inexpensive production and abundance of asbestos-containing materials began a widespread demand for using asbestos in building materials. Due to being a fire retardant, asbestos began to be used in the manufacturing of fire-resistant clothing for firefighters as well as hot pads in the food production industry. Asbestos was also widely used in the automobile industry for making cloth fittings and brake shoes for trucks and cars. In fact, there came a time in the world when asbestos could be found in almost every product – from thermal insulation to even cat litter.(23)

However, the hype over asbestos soon came to a crashing end as in the early 1970s, studies began to show the adverse health effects of using materials made from asbestos. Of course, such claims were staunchly refuted in the beginning, but once these studies began to show credible results, the widespread use of asbestos began to slow down. It was actually in the 1930s that asbestos began to be associated with lung cancer, and though the link began to gain popularity in the 1940s, due to lingering doubts and industry-wide support for the fibrous material, widespread use of asbestos continued well into the 1970s.

It was only in the 1970s that companies started working on developing other suitable substitutes for asbestos and the removal of asbestos from markets began. At the same time, regulations were also developed to deal with the manufacturing and removal of asbestos-containing materials. At the same time, asbestos mining efforts were also ceased.(45)

What’s unfortunate though is that even today, some asbestos-containing products still remain on the market and many companies still use asbestos in making their products today in spite of the regulations.

Link of Asbestos Exposure to the Development of Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that affects the thin layer of tissue that covers your organs known as the mesothelium. It is an aggressive and deadly form of cancer and even though there are treatments available to manage the symptoms, there is no cure for mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is divided into four major types, depending on what part of the body gets affected. It has most commonly been observed to affect the tissue that surrounds the lungs, known as the pleura. This type of mesothelioma is known as pleural mesothelioma. The other three types of mesothelioma are relatively even rarer. They affect the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma), the heart (pericardial mesothelioma), and the testicles (testicular mesothelioma). Out of these four, pericardial and testicular mesothelioma is extremely rare.(6789)

Link of Asbestos Exposure to the Development of Mesothelioma

It was in 1943 that H.W. Wedlers first reported a link between asbestos and cancer of the pleura in German asbestos workers. He reported that nearly 20 percent of the asbestos workers developed cancer, with lung cancer being diagnosed more commonly than mesothelioma. While Wedler’s study received widespread support in Germany, but due to the political atmosphere at that time, the rest of the world ignored any research coming out of Nazi-occupied Germany.(1011)

In 1960, J.C. Wagner and a doctor by the name of Chris Sleggs conducted a study on asbestos exposure and its effects. Their study showed a direct link between cancer and asbestos exposure. They published their study in the British Journal of Medicine in 1960, detailing 33 cases of mesothelioma that were discovered in South African citizens. These patients lived around a mine where crocidolite asbestos mining used to take place, and the mining operations had contaminated the entire region.(12)

Many other studies followed and all of them proved the association of mesothelioma and many other conditions to asbestos exposure. Research on environmental asbestos exposure was also soon shown to be a possible cause of mesothelioma. A study looked at six communities living in Spain, Switzerland, and Italy. These communities had cement plants, asbestos mines, shipyards, brake factories, and textile factories. The study found that those people living within 2000 meters of these locations had a high risk of mesothelioma.(13)

How Does Asbestos Exposure Happen?

You are at risk of being exposed to asbestos when the microscopic asbestos fibers present in automotive parts, building, and industrial materials, or any other products become airborne. This transforms into a cloud of toxic mineral dust which can remain in the air for many hours. Anybody nearby is in danger of ingesting or inhaling it. In fact, if there is no disturbance in the environment, asbestos fibers can continue to remain airborne for even 48 to 72 hours. And even if the dust is disturbed, it easily becomes airborne again because it is so lightweight.(14)

Many people get exposed to asbestos because of their occupations. While asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, most exposures though happen from its use in thousands of commercial, industrial, and domestic products. While a majority of companies stopped using asbestos in the 1980s, there are still many asbestos-containing materials that remain behind in the older buildings, especially in the US.

How is Mesothelioma Treated?

As mentioned above, despite of so much research, there is still no cure for mesothelioma. However, research has ensured the development of better treatments that help some patients live for longer and also reduce the severity of their symptoms.(15)

Unfortunately, mesothelioma can be very challenging to treat as it is usually only detected when it has already reached an advanced stage. Most treatments work towards controlling the further spread and growth of the cancer for as long as possible and also to keep your symptoms under control. The exact treatment depends on the type and stage of mesothelioma you have and your general health. Some of the possible treatments for mesothelioma include:(1617)

  • Chemotherapy: This is the main treatment for mesothelioma and it uses medication to help reduce or shrink the cancer.(1819)
  • Radiotherapy: This form of treatment involves the use of high-energy radiation to kill the cancer cells. Radiotherapy may be used to slow down the growth of the cancer and to keep it under control.(2021)
  • Surgery: Surgical intervention is used to remove the cancerous area or tumor and the surrounding tissue. However, surgery is only possible if the mesothelioma is detected at a very early stage. However, it is not exactly clear whether surgery is actually helpful in treating mesothelioma. (22)
  • Immunotherapy: This type of treatment uses a combination of two medications to help boost the immune system to start attacking the cancer cells. Immunotherapy does not cure mesothelioma, but it can help slow down the spread of the cancer, thus prolonging the survival time.(232425)

Apart from these treatment options, you will also receive treatment for your individual symptoms in order to make your life as comfortable as possible. For example, in cases of pleural mesothelioma, draining the fluid that builds up from time to time can help you breathe easier, while strong painkillers might be prescribed to help manage the pain. In some cases, a procedure known as pleurodesis is carried out to prevent the fluid from coming back again.(26)

Your doctor will discuss all the possible treatments with you to arrive at the best possible option for your individual case.


Unfortunately, the outlook for mesothelioma is usually quite poor. This is because mesothelioma does not cause any obvious symptoms until it reaches a fairly advanced stage by when it is already too late to do anything. Also, once this type of cancer reaches an advanced stage, it tends to progress rather quickly, spreading beyond control to other parts of the body.

Thousands of people continue to receive the diagnosis of mesothelioma every year, most commonly due to asbestos exposure. Even though asbestos mining and the use of asbestos have been banned since the 1980s, there are still many products and places where asbestos exposure is very much possible, especially if you reside in old buildings.

Since being exposed to asbestos is the biggest risk factor for mesothelioma, the best way to lower your risk is to limit your exposure to asbestos in public buildings, at home, and at your workplace.


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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:February 13, 2023

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