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Asbestos and cancer

Asbestos is a naturally occurring toxic mineral that was commonly used throughout the 20th century in thousands of products and many industries. Asbestos is naturally resistant to heat and fire, making it ideal for use in insulation. The fine, flexible fibers that make up asbestos were frequently mixed with cement and woven into fabrics.

Why is asbestos a problem?

Exposure to asbestos can result in the development of serious illnesses such as malignant mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis, and hundreds of Australians pass away each year due to asbestos-related illnesses. Australia has the second highest rate of asbestos-related cancer deaths in the world. More than 5000 people have succumbed to the disease since the early 1980s, when Australia first began keeping mesothelioma records. According to cancer experts, an additional 25,000 Australians are expected to die over the next four decades from mesothelioma.

Asbestos was phased out in Australia after 1980 and it was ultimately banned from building products in 1989, though it remained in car gaskets and brake linings until recently. Asbestos was prohibited completely after 31 December 2003.

Who is most at risk of asbestos exposure?

Exposure to asbestos occurred frequently on the job in many different occupations. Jobsites where asbestos exposure was often prevalent include asbestos mines and the processing and manufacturing plants where asbestos products were produced.

Between 1945 and 1980, those working in the construction industry were likely to have been exposed to asbestos. Many public buildings built during this period, as well as around a third of private dwellings, used building materials that contained asbestos. This included concrete, cement sheeting, vinyl floor coverings, pipes and boilers, and insulation.

Shipyards, oil refineries, power and chemical plants were also common exposure sites. Those who worked in certain occupations such as firefighters, auto mechanics and machinists may have been frequently exposed to asbestos.

Those who work to remove asbestos or deal with asbestos that remains at certain sites are also at risk of exposure and have to take careful precautions against the consequences of uncontrolled, unsafe removal.

What cancers are caused by asbestos exposure?

Asbestos exposure has been linked to the development of several cancers, including mesothelioma and lung cancer. Exposure has also been linked to gastrointestinal cancer and colorectal cancer, as well as breast, ovarian and prostate cancer.

Asbestosis is a progressive pulmonary (lung) disease that is also caused by asbestos exposure. Conditions such as pleural plaques, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and interstitial lung disease are among other illnesses associated with asbestos exposure.

What is mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer. One of the primary causes of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. The cancer develops in the mesothelium, a protective membrane that lines three body cavities: the thoracic cavity (pleura), abdominal cavity (peritoneum) and the heart sac (pericardium). In the case of testicular mesothelioma, the cancer develops in the tunica vaginalis, the membrane surrounding the testicles.

Plueral and peritoneal mesothelioma 

In 2007, 551 Australians died of mesothelioma. Eighty-four percent of those individuals were men, and overall more than 70 percent of the mesothelioma deaths were among men and women over the age of 65. National trends from 1997 to 2007 show that the number of deaths from mesothelioma is steadily increasing, and experts believe this number will peak between 2014 and 2021.

What are the different types of mesothelioma?

The four different types of mesothelioma are named for the area of the body they affect. The most common type of the cancer is pleural mesothelioma, which develops in the mesothelial lining of the lungs, known as the pleura. Peritoneal mesothelioma occurs in the peritoneum, the lining of the abdominal cavity. Pericardial mesothelioma affects the membrane surrounding the heart, known as the pericardium while testicular mesothelioma develops in the tunica vaginalis, the lining around the testicles.

How does mesothelioma develop?

The cancer develops when asbestos fibres are inhaled or ingested into the body where they can become lodged in organs or cavities, causing inflammation or infection and cellular damage. Overtime, the cancerous cells begin to divide uncontrollably, causing the membranes in the affected location to thicken. Fluid then begins to build up in the spaces between membrane layers and tumours begin to form, causing impaired bodily function.

What are the symptoms of mesothelioma?

A mesothelioma patient will generally not demonstrate symptoms of mesothelioma until 20 to 50 years after initial exposure to asbestos. Symptoms often resemble illnesses such as influenza and pneumonia, and in the case of pericardial mesothelioma, symptoms can resemble other cardiac conditions. This can make diagnosis difficult though informing a doctor of prior asbestos exposure can alert them of the possibility of an asbestos-related disease.

Patients with pleural mesothelioma may experience symptoms including persistent raspy cough, difficulty breathing and swallowing, night sweats, fatigue and chest pain. Symptoms expressed by a peritoneal mesothelioma patient include diarrhea or constipation, nausea, fever, swelling or pain in the abdomen and anaemia. Pericardial mesothelioma patients may experience chest pain, heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, fever and fatigue. The only known symptom of testicular mesothelioma is the appearance of testicular lumps.

What is the typical prognosis for a patient with mesothelioma?

A mesothelioma patient’s prognosis, or the probable course and outcome of a disease’s influence on the body, is influenced by numerous factors. Since a mesothelioma diagnosis often occurs once the cancer has progressed to later stages of development, prognosis is typically poor. However if a patient is diagnosed before the cancer has spread or elects to undergo treatment to combat the cancer, their prognosis may improve.

Factors that may influence prognosis include: the stage of a patient’s mesothelioma at the time of diagnosis, type of mesothelioma, size of the tumour, location of the tumour and whether it may be surgically removed and the age and overall health of the patient.

Is there a cure for mesothelioma?

While a cure for mesothelioma doesn’t currently exist, treatment options such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are available for patients to help combat the cancer. Extensive studies and clinical trials are in progress internationally and cancer specialists and doctors are constantly working towards the discovery of a cure.

Further information

The Mesothelioma Center

Australian Mesothelioma Registry


American Cancer Society. Malignant Mesothelioma Overview. [online] Atlanta, Georgia: American Cancer Society. c2012 [accessed 22 Feb 2012] Available from:

Dodson R Hammar S. Asbestos: Risk Assessment, Epidemiology, and Health Effects. Boca Raton: Taylor and Francis. 2011.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Asbestos. [online] Washington, DC: EPA. c2011 [accessed 22 Feb 2012] Available from:

National Cancer Institute (NCI). Malignant Mesothelioma. [online] Bethseda, MD: NCI. c2011 [accessed 22 Feb 2012] Available from:

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Asbestos related diseases. [online] Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. [Last reviewed 4 Jul 2011, accessed 11 Jan 2012]. Available from:

Last updated: 29 Feb 2012

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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