What is Mesothelioma and what causes it?

Mesothelioma is a malignant tumour (cancer) of the mesothelium.  The mesothelium is the membrane that lines either the chest wall, separating it from the lung (the pleura) or the abdominal wall, separating it from the intestines ( the peritoneum).   There can therefore be a mesothelioma of the pleura or peritoneal mesothelioma.   Pleural mesothelioma is about 10 times more common than peritoneal.


In the vast majority of cases mesothelioma is caused by inhalation of asbestos fibres.   Most common are a result of occupational exposure, but it can also occur from asbestos in the enviroment, or handling or washing clothes of the asbestos workers.  There is a long time interval between the expoure and developing mesothelioma, on average about 40 years, but the range can be be 10-60 years.  As the use of asbestos in industry and buildings reached a peak in the 1970s before it was banned, we can expect cases to continue to rise for the next 8-10 years.

What are the symptoms?
Pleural mesothelioma

This usually presents with breathlessness,chest pain, or cough, or a combination of these.  The breathlessness is usually due to fluid from the tumour filling the pleural cavity and compressing the underlying lung.   This is called a pleural effusion.  Other less specific symptoms include loss of appetite and weight, fatigue and sweating.

Peritoneal mesothelioma

Common symptoms include abdominal distension due to fluid ( called ascites), pain, weight loss, fatique and sweating.  Other local symtoms may include disturbances of bowel function and vomiting. Weight loss,fatigue and swaeting can also occur.

How is it diagnosed?
Pleural mesothelioma

A chest x-ray is usually the start, probably followed by a CT (computerised tomoraphy) or ultrasound scan.  The next step willl be to get aa tissue sample. Sometimes the diagnosed is confirmed by drawing off the pleural fluid with a needle, but usually a more formal biopsy is required.

The biopsy can be obtained under local anaesthetic ( CT biopsy) or general anaesthetic (thoracoscopy).  Thoracoscopy involves inserting a fibreoptic camera into the pleural space and taking sample under direct vision.  The next step is staging, this is to ascertain the extent of the tumour within the body and is done by a CT scan of the body.

Peritoneal mesothelioma


The process is similar to pleural, except the samples are taken from the peritoneal cavity, by simple aspiration, CT biopsy or a laparoscopy ( under anaesthetic).  A staging CT scan will also be done.


Statistics show that Mesothelioma Deaths continue to increase in Great Britain. Deaths occurring now are a legacy of past exposures to asbestos when it was widely used particularly for insulating buildings. The latest information shows: The number of mesothelioma deaths has increased from 153 in 1968 to 2 321 in 2009. Over 80% of deaths were among men. (Mesothelioma register).

Men who worked in the building industry when asbestos was still being used widely are now among those most at risk of mesothelioma. Most deaths among women are likely to be due to a range of non-occupational asbestos exposures.


The worst case predictions for males are that annual deaths will increase to a peak of about 2 100 in about the year 2016. Female deaths are likely to peak after this but at a much lower level.

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material that has been a popular building material since the 1950s. It is used as an insulator (to keep in heat and keep out cold), has good fire protection properties and protects against corrosion.

Because asbestos is often mixed with another material, it’s hard to know if its asbestos or not. But it’s likely that some parts of most buildings built before the year 2000 will contain asbestos.



 How to Stay Safe

  • Any home built or refurbished before 2000 could contain asbestos. It can be found in ceiling and garage roof tiles, pipe lagging, boilers, sprayed coatings and cavity-wall insulation. Other common areas are around window frames.
  • To protect yourself during a DIY project, wear overalls, eye protection and a face mask — especially if your job is likely to produce dust. But asbestos fibres are small enough to penetrate most masks, so never assume you’re safe. Dust can also settle on clothing, which could be a serious health risk to everyone you come into contact with.
  • Asbestos comes in all shapes, sizes and colours (blue, brown and white), which are found in many building products. But as it was often mixed with other materials, it can be hard to spot. The Health & Safety Executive has produced an image gallery of typical asbestos-containing materials. Go to
  • Asbestos materials in good condition are not a health risk and should be fine if you leave them alone. Simply check their condition from time to time to ensure they haven’t started to deteriorate. If you have to remove asbestos, it’s essential you use a reputable, licensed contractor to handle and dispose of it properly.

Please visit Asbestos issues for further information.

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