Mesothelioma Rare in the Pre-Asbestos Age

If there was any doubt about the direct causal connection between asbestos and the aggressive cancer known as mesothelioma, a new report published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine should put it to rest for good.

Researchers from the Department of Pathology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York analyzed the data on the incidence of malignant pleural mesothelioma prior to the widespread commercial use of asbestos.  Although most mesothelioma is known to be linked to occupational asbestos exposure, the scientific community has been divided about whether or not mesothelioma can occur, even without a triggering irritant like asbestos.

To answer the question, the team analyzed 2,025 autopsies performed at Mount Sinai Hospital between 1883 and 1910, prior to the time when asbestos became popular as an insulator and building material additive. The results were telling – among the 2,025 autopsies, there were no cases of malignant mesothelioma identified. Although the report does not prove that there was no mesothelioma prior to the widespread commercial introduction of asbestos, it does suggest that it was probably extremely rare.

A naturally-occurring mineral fiber, asbestos rose in popularity beginning the 1920’s and 30’s. Because of its strength, prevalence, low cost, and resistance to fire, heat and corrosion, asbestos was used to insulate pipes, engines, boilers and electrical systems. It was added to drywall compounds, adhesives, paints and concrete and was used to make floor tiles and roof shingles. People who lived or worked around asbestos or asbestos containing materials and their families are at highest risk for mesothelioma, which continues to affect about 3,000 Americans a year.

Although its handling is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the U.S. has not banned asbestos. Because of the long latency of mesothelioma, thousands of people who were exposed to asbestos as many as 50 years ago continue to be diagnosed.  The incidence of mesothelioma is expected to continue to rise for at least the next 20 years.


Strauchen, JA, “Rarity of malignant mesothelioma prior to the widespread commercial introduction of asbestos: The Mount Sinai autopsy experience 1883-1910”, March 30, 2011, American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

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