Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that affects cells found in the mesothelium, a protective membrane surrounding the majority of the body’s internal organs. The cells that make up this membrane protect the organs by making a special fluid that allows the organs to move and, in particular, help the lungs to move during breathing.
The vast majority of people who develop this deadly disease have inhaled asbestos particles, often through their jobs. In fact, a history of asbestos exposure in the workplace is reported in approximately 70 to 80 percent of all mesothelioma cases. In addition to mesothelioma, the inhalation of the deadly mineral fibers can cause lung cancer and asbestosis. The World Health Organization estimates that asbestos-related diseases kill approximately 107,000 people around the world each year.
Asbestos was originally prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans due to its resistance to fire and use as an insulator. Use of the mineral increased rapidly during the 19th century, particularly during the Industrial Revolution. By the mid-1930s, however, it was known that exposure to asbestos could cause a range of serious illnesses.