What Causes Mesothelioma?

Almost all cases of malignant mesothelioma in Hawai‘i are caused by exposure to asbestos. When you inhale the dust created by any asbestos product, tiny fibers become lodged in your lung tissue. Once in the body, these fibers act as a powerful carcinogen.

Doctors do not fully understand the mechanism by which asbestos causes mesothelioma. However, we know that the asbestos fibers damage the tissue and cause inflammation. Researchers believe that the asbestos may also cause genetic changes in the mesothelial cells. Over time, these genetic mutations can become malignant and turn into cancer.

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Most people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma have a history of occupational exposure, meaning that they were exposed to deadly asbestos fibers on the job. Mesothelioma is particularly prevalent among former shipyard workers from Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, U.S. Navy veterans, construction workers who helped build Ala Moana shopping center and Waikiki high rises, boilermakers, and other tradesmen who were heavily exposed to asbestos at work.

However, even very brief or low levels of asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma. There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos.

It is well-documented that the wives and children of men who worked with asbestos can get mesothelioma from the asbestos that was carried home on the worker’s clothes. This is commonly known as household exposure. Our firm has represented the wives of Pearl Harbor workers and sugar mill workers who were exposed to asbestos when they did their husbands laundry. People can also get mesothelioma through bystander exposure, often while working on a job site where other workers are using asbestos products.

Identifying Past Exposure to Asbestos

Exposures may also be occult: either unknown or entirely forgotten. People do not always know when they are being exposed to asbestos. Asbestos is found in many, many products and is encountered in many different situations, not all of them traditional work environments. For example, asbestos was commonly used in floor tiles, paper, asphalt felts, and textiles—and of course exposure can occur to bystanders around construction sites and renovations, in homes and buildings, and in neighborhoods.

Because of the long latency period, most mesothelioma victims are in their 50s, 60s or 70s. However, some may be as young as 30 or 40. These younger mesothelioma victims often grew up with a family member who worked with asbestos, usually their father. In many cases, the people who get mesothelioma in their 30s and 40s were exposed to asbestos as children from the dust that their fathers brought home on their hair and clothes.

Sometimes it is difficult to identify the exact source of the asbestos exposure due to mesothelioma’s long latency period. People usually get mesothelioma between 10 and 40 years after their first exposure to asbestos. It is often difficult for people to remember the details of their asbestos exposure after so many years have passed.

With more than 35 years of experience, the Galiher firm has extensive information about the use of asbestos at Pearl Harbor and other Hawai‘i job sites, and we can help you identify the products you worked with.