Mesothelioma Causes

When we take a deep breath, air goes down the wind-pipe, otherwise known as the trachea, into the middle of the chest. There the trachea divides into thousands of little airways called bronchi and bronchioles in each lung. At the end of each airway is a tiny sac called an alveolus. Healthy lungs have hundreds of millions of these alveoli sacs.

Following the air flow

  • The air we inhale moves all the way through the lungs to the alveoli.
  • The oxygen in that deep breath is transported through the walls of the alveoli into the red blood cells in the blood vessels called capillaries that surround each alveolus.
  • The heart pumps the oxygen-rich blood through the body to fuel us.
  • A by-product of our activity is the build-up of exhaust fumes, otherwise known as carbon dioxide, which are picked up by red blood cells and follow a reverse path for disposal when we exhale.

Our lungs expand and contract as we breathe in and out, whereas our ribs are fairly immobile. The pleura, or lining around the outside of the lungs and inside of the ribs, has some lubricating fluid. It allows the lungs and ribs to slide over each other comfortably. It is easy to imagine that, if the pleura is damaged or inflamed, as it is by the inhalation of asbestos fibers and by the diseases asbestos causes, every breath becomes very painful.

How asbestos attacks your body

Asbestos fibers enter the body in the air we breathe. Most of the asbestos fibers we breathe—like other dust particles—are stopped long before they enter the small airways of the lungs. For example, when we enter a dusty room or sprinkle powder, we sometimes choke. We literally cough up the mucus that contains most of the irritating substances. However, because asbestos fibers are so small and thin, many of them pass all the way down to the small airways and alveoli.

The onset of asbestos disease

Once the fibers are inside the lungs, the body’s defense mechanisms try to break them down and remove them. However, many fibers still remain in the body and are potential disease-causing agents:

  • Each fiber is a foreign body—like a splinter in a finger—and inflammations develop as our bodies try to neutralize, break down or move the sharp, irritating asbestos fibers.
  • These processes lead to development of the various kinds of asbestos-caused diseases.

Early recognition

Our body’s defenses often coat the tiny asbestos fibers with a layer of protein, leading to the name asbestos bodies. Asbestos diseases can be identified early by placing a piece of lung tissue stained for iron under a microscope, where they become readily visible. From observation the following can be deduced:

  • Finding substantial presence of asbestos bodies in lung tissue proves prior occupational exposure to asbestos, but does not in itself prove that the person has an asbestos disease.
  • Conversely, a lack of asbestos bodies does not prove that there was no prior exposure to asbestos and further testing may be required, especially in cases where a patient is confident he or she has been exposed.

Different types of asbestos behave differently in our bodies

All of the different kinds of asbestos fibers can be inhaled and become lodged in the lungs, but they act differently there:

  • Amphiboles including amosite and crocidolite seem to accumulate in the lungs to a greater extent than chrysotile.
  • Scientists speculate that chrysotile (serpentine) fibers, being long and curly, get stuck high up in the lungs rather than traveling into the smaller airways. They also think chrysotile fibers, being fragile and unstable, break up in a few months and are transported from the lungs into the pleura or lymph system. This explains why this most prevalent form of asbestos is most associated with lung cancer and the very deadly pleural mesothelioma.
  • Once any asbestos fibers are inside the body, they can move around, and hence can impact not only the lungs and lymph system but other parts of the body as well.

It is significant to note that asbestos can be swallowed (ingested) as well as inhaled. For example, when mucus and sputum that contain a lot of fibers are swallowed, some of those fibers can stick in the intestinal tract and from there they can move into the lining of the abdomen—the peritoneum, resulting in peritoneal mesothelioma.

Now that you are aware of how asbestos gets into the body and can cause mesothelioma and other serious diseases, we invite you to review the sections on mesothelioma types and treatments. These provide more information about what a doctor may tell you regarding diagnosis and treatment.