Although reported incidence rates have increased in the past 20 years, mesothelioma is still a relatively rare cancer. The incidence is approximately one per 1,000,000. For comparison, populations with high levels of smoking can have a lung cancer incidence of over 1,000 per 1,000,000. Incidence of malignant mesothelioma currently ranges from about 7 to 40 per 1,000,000 in industrialized Western nations, depending on the amount of asbestos exposure of the populations during the past several decades. It has been estimated that incidence may have peaked at 15 per 1,000,000 in the United States in 2004. Incidence is expected to continue increasing in other parts of the world. Mesothelioma occurs more often in men than in women and risk increases with age, but this disease can appear in either men or women at any age. Approximately one fifth to one third of all mesotheliomas are peritoneal.
Working with asbestos is the major risk factor for mesothelioma. A history of asbestos exposure exists in almost all cases. However, mesothelioma has been reported in some individuals without any known exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is the name of a group of minerals that occur naturally as masses of strong, flexible fibers that can be separated into thin threads and woven. Asbestos has been widely used in many industrial products, including cement, brake linings, roof shingles, flooring products, textiles, and insulation. If tiny asbestos particles float in the air, especially during the manufacturing process, they may be inhaled or swallowed, and can cause serious health problems. In addition to mesothelioma, exposure to asbestos increases the risk of lung cancer, asbestosis (a noncancerous, chronic lung ailment), and other cancers, such as those of the larynx and kidney.
The combination of smoking and asbestos exposure significantly increases a person's risk of developing cancer of the airways (lung cancer, bronchial carcinoma). The Kent brand of cigarettes used asbestos in its filters for the first few years of production in the 1950s and some cases of mesothelioma have resulted. Smoking current cigarettes does not appear to increase the risk of mesothelioma.
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 work in asbestos mines and mills, producers of asbestos products, workers in the heating and construction industries, and other tradespeople. Today, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets limits for acceptable levels of asbestos exposure in the workplace. By contrast, the British Government's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states formally that any threshold for mesothelioma must be at a very low level and it is widely agreed that if any such threshold does exists at all, then it cannot currently be quantified. For practical purposes, therefore, HSE does not assume that any such threshold exists. People who work with asbestos wear personal protective equipment to lower their risk of exposure.
Exposure to asbestos fibres has been recognized as an occupational health hazard since the 1900s. Several epidemiological studies have associated exposure to asbestos with the development of lesions such as asbestos bodies in the sputum, pleural plaques and diffuse pleural fibrosis, asbestosis, carcinoma of the lung and larynx, gastrointestinal tumors and diffuse mesothelioma of the pleura and peritoneum.