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Mesothelioma and asbestos

Mesothelioma and asbestos

A general overview of mesothelioma would describe it as a cancer that begins in the tissue mesothelium that lines the lungs, heart, stomach, and other organs. This causes a painful cough, difficulty in breathing, chest pain, abdominal pain and weight loss.

Some treatments can help manage the condition, but there is no known cure for mesothelioma. As mesothelioma is known to be caused by a previous exposure to asbestos dust, it is vital to seek medical help early on to try and minimise the negative effects of the disease.

What is mesothelioma and what causes it?

Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that develops from the thin layer of tissue that covers many of the internal organs, known as the mesothelium. The most common area affected is the lining of the lungs and chest wall. Less commonly the lining of the abdomen and rarely the sac surrounding the heart, or the sac surrounding the testis may be affected. Signs and symptoms of mesothelioma may include shortness of breath due to fluid around the lung, a swollen abdomen, chest wall pain, cough, feeling tired, and weight loss. These symptoms typically come on fairly slowly and may take decades to become serious.

More than eighty percent of mesothelioma cases are caused by exposure to asbestos. The greater the exposure the greater the risk. As of 2013, about 125 million people worldwide have been exposed to asbestos at work. High rates of disease occur in people who mine asbestos, produce products from asbestos, work with asbestos products, live with asbestos workers, or work in buildings containing asbestos. Asbestos exposure and the onset of cancer are generally separated by about 40 years. Washing the clothing of someone who worked with asbestos also increases the risk. Other risk factors include genetics and infection with the simian virus 40. The diagnosis may be suspected based on chest X-ray and CT scan findings, and is confirmed by either examining fluid produced by the cancer or by a tissue biopsy of the cancer.

Prevention centers around reducing exposure to asbestos. Treatment often includes surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. A procedure known as pleurodesis, which involves using substances such as talc to scar together the pleura, may be used to prevent more fluid from building up around the lungs. Chemotherapy often includes the medications cisplatin and pemetrexed. A study from the United States determined that the percentage of people that survive five years following diagnosis is on average eight percent.

Mesothelioma at a glance

  • In 2015, about 60,800 people had mesothelioma, and 32,000 died from the disease.
  • It occurs in about 3,000 people per year in the United States.
  • Rates of mesothelioma vary in different areas of the world.
  • It occurs more often in males than females.
  • Rates are higher in Australia, the United Kingdom, and lower in Japan.
  • Rates of disease have increased since the 1950s.
  • Diagnosis typically occurs after the age of 65 and most deaths occur around 70 years of age.
  • The disease was rare before the commercial use of asbestos.

Symptoms of mesothelioma

Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:

  • Coughing
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss
Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include:
  • Abdominal pain
  • Lumps in the abdomen
  • Abdominal swelling

Conditions related to Mesothelioma


A lung disease that develops due to inhalation of asbestos fibres which is a fibrous hydrated magnesium silicate. Asbestos fibres are used for building roofs, insulation etc. Long time exposure to asbestos leads to shortness of breath by causing fibrosis of the lung.


Silicosis is a long term lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of crystalline silica dust, usually over many years.


a disease of the lungs due to inhalation of dust, characterised by inflammation, coughing, and fibrosis.


A condition in which there is an abnormal collection of inflammatory cells that form clumps in the lungs, skin or lymph nodes. This results in persistent dry cough and shortness of breath.

Celebrity deaths due to asbestos exposure

Some celebrities who died from mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos were:

Malcolm McLaren

Malcolm McLaren was an English impresario, visual artist, performer, musician, clothes designer and boutique owner. He is best known as a promoter and manager of bands the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols.

McLaren was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in October 2009, and died of the disease on 8 April 2010 in a hospital in Switzerland

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen was an American actor. McQueen was nicknamed 'The King of Cool', and his antihero persona developed at the height of the counterculture of the 1960s made him a top box office draw during the 1960s and 1970s.

McQueen gave a medical interview in which he blamed his condition on asbestos exposure. McQueen believed that asbestos used in movie sound stage insulation and racing drivers protective suits and helmets could have been involved, but he thought it more likely that his illness was a direct result of massive exposure while removing asbestos lagging from pipes aboard a troop ship while he was in the Marines.

Merlin Olsen

Merlin Olsen was an American football player, announcer, and actor. He played his entire 15 year professional football career in the National Football League as a defensive tackle with the Los Angeles Rams. As an actor, he portrayed farmer Jonathan Garvey on Little House on the Prairie. After leaving that series, he starred in his own NBC drama, Father Murphy.

Olsen was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2009, and underwent three courses of chemotherapy. In December 2009, he filed a lawsuit against 25 defendants including NBC Studios, NBC Universal, and 20th Century Fox, Georgia Pacific, Sherwin-Williams, and Lennox Corp. for allegedly exposing him to the asbestos which he claimed had caused his cancer.

Mickie Most

Mickie Most was an English record producer behind scores of hit singles for acts such as the Animals, Hermans Hermits, the Nashville Teens, Donovan, Lulu, Suzi Quatro, Hot Chocolate, Arrows, Racey, and the Jeff Beck Group, often issued on his own RAK Records label.

In 2003, Most died at home aged 64 from peritoneal mesothelioma, a complication of asbestosis. The investigative journalist Paul Foot thought it probable that he contracted the cancer from ingesting fibres from vinyl tiles impregnated with asbestos, intended to improve soundproofing in recording studios. A blue plaque, to commemorate his life, donated by the Heritage Foundation/Musical Heritage, was unveiled at RAK Studios on 16 May 2004. The lunch and auction that followed raised £40,000 for research into mesothelioma.

Ed Lauter

Ed Lauter was an American actor and stand-up comedian. He appeared in more than 200 films and TV series episodes in a career that spanned over 40 years.

On October 16, 2013, two weeks before his 75th birthday, Lauter died of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, having been diagnosed five months earlier in May.

Following his death, Lauters family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against many well known broadcasting, automotive, and manufacturing companies for exposing Lauter to asbestos, which led to his death. The suit alleges that Lauter was exposed to asbestos at various movie studios and location sets over his 40 year career as an actor in Los Angeles. The lawsuit remains pending as of late 2020.

The list of deaths from asbestos related mesothelioma goes on and on and when you include non celebrities, the list is frighteningly long.

Why was asbestos used in products and materials?

Asbestos has unique chemical and physical properties that make it strong and resistant to heat and chemical reaction. Its chemical composition makes it less likely to react with other compounds, and the space between its fibres reduces conduction of heat, making it resistant to fire.

Asbestos properties

  • Asbestos is abundant: Asbestos occurs naturally in mineral deposits around the world and there are literally tons of it still waiting to be mined.
  • Asbestos is fibrous: Asbestos ore can be pulled apart into a wool like consistency and then worked like any other type of fibre. This makes it perfect for textile applications.
  • Asbestos is very durable: Asbestos is resistant to heat, electricity and chemical corrosion. This makes asbestos a very versatile product.
  • Asbestos is highly carcinogenic: Microscopic asbestos fibres are not easily broken down by the human body once they are inhaled. Over many years, lodged asbestos fibres can cause chronic inflammation, build-up of scar tissue and cancer.
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