Mesothelioma cancer is not contagious. Spending time with a mesothelioma patient will not increase a person’s risk of developing the cancer. Even exposure to a mesothelioma patient’s blood or bodily fluids cannot transmit the cancer.
However, asbestos fibers can be passed from one person to another. Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma and several other asbestos-related cancers. An individual exposed to asbestos may unknowingly expose others by carrying asbestos fibers on their clothing or on their person.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral known for its durability and heat resistant properties. Because of these qualities, asbestos companies added the mineral to products and construction materials. For decades, natural asbestos deposits were mined across the country to meet the needs of multiple industries.
Asbestos Exposure Causes Mesothelioma Cancer
Although mesothelioma is not contagious, it may appear to be when multiple people are exposed to asbestos. People in the same geographic region, workplace or household may all experience asbestos exposure from the same source.
A situation like this occurred in Libby, Montana, which had a working asbestos mine for many years. Mine workers and residents of Libby experienced multiple forms of asbestos exposure. Many Libby residents developed lung cancer and mesothelioma as a result.
When people in the same area develop mesothelioma, as seen in Libby, this may make the cancer appear contagious. However, this is an illusion.
The individuals in question did not contract the disease from other mesothelioma patients. Rather, these individuals all experienced asbestos exposure from the same source, causing mesothelioma.
Asbestos Fibers Can Be Passed from Person to Person
Most cases of pleural mesothelioma have been linked to asbestos exposure, often in the workplace. People who encounter asbestos at work may not know they have been exposed to the fibers. This may lead such workers to go home without properly decontaminating their clothes.
If a worker carries asbestos fibers home in their hair or clothing, those fibers may then transfer to objects in the home. When another household member encounters these asbestos fibers, they experience secondary exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos Exposure Does Not Guarantee Cancer
Asbestos exposure alone does not guarantee a future mesothelioma diagnosis. A person’s mesothelioma risk is related to the duration and amount of asbestos exposure they encounter. People exposed to a high level of asbestos for a long time are more likely to develop mesothelioma than those with lesser exposure.
Persons exposed to asbestos fibers may go on to develop mesothelioma many years after exposure. However, it takes a significant amount of time for asbestos fibers to cause mesothelioma.
Asbestos Fibers Cause Mesothelioma Over Time
If an individual exposed to asbestos inhales the mineral, the asbestos fibers can travel all the way into and through the lungs. The fibers may embed in the tissue surrounding the lungs, called the pleura.
Over time, asbestos fibers can cause cell damage and inflammation. Long-term inflammation and cell damage can then cause mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma takes years to develop. The time between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma diagnosis is called the latency period. The latency period is usually between 10 and 50 years.
In contrast, contagious diseases often develop quickly. For example, one study estimates about 90% of COVID-19 cases develop within 12 days of exposure to the virus.
Some Individuals May Have a Higher Risk of Developing Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is not contagious. Therefore, interacting with mesothelioma patients does not increase one’s risk of developing the disease. However, some people may be more likely to develop mesothelioma than others.
The following factors may increase one’s risk of developing malignant mesothelioma:
- Age: The risk of developing mesothelioma increases with age. More than half of pleural mesothelioma diagnoses occur in individuals 65 or older.
- Erionite: Erionite is a mineral with properties similar to asbestos. Exposure to erionite may increase one’s risk of developing mesothelioma.
- Genetic predisposition: Certain gene mutations may increase the risk of developing mesothelioma. For instance, mutations in the BAP1 gene have been associated with mesothelioma.
- Male gender: Mesothelioma is more common in men than women. This may be due to the higher likelihood of workplace exposure for men than women.
- Radiation: Exposure to high doses of radiation to the chest or abdomen may increase one’s risk of developing mesothelioma.
- SV40 virus: Infection with simian virus 40 (SV40) may increase one’s risk of developing mesothelioma. However, it is not a confirmed risk factor, and researchers are still investigating this possibility.
Most of the risk factors for mesothelioma are impossible to control. However, there are ways to reduce your risk of asbestos exposure, the only confirmed cause of mesothelioma.
Decrease Mesothelioma Risk by Avoiding Asbestos
Individuals can reduce their risk of developing mesothelioma by avoiding or reducing asbestos exposure. Taking any of the following steps may reduce an individual’s risk of exposure to asbestos:
- Hire asbestos abatement agents to remove or treat asbestos in homes or offices.
- Wear appropriate protective equipment if working with asbestos.
- Follow decontamination procedures after working with asbestos.
Individuals who have encountered asbestos should discuss their exposure with a physician. A mesothelioma specialist can help such patients monitor for potential asbestos diseases.