Latency Period of Mesothelioma & Asbestos Disease

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What is the latency period for asbestos? Mesothelioma, a cancer whose primary cause is exposure to asbestos, has a notoriously long latency period. In fact, the span of time between exposure to asbestos and development of symptoms is usually measured in decades rather than months.

This long lag between exposure and diagnosis is a major reason why mesothelioma is such a deadly form of cancer; for many patients, once they have enough symptoms to know that something is wrong, it’s too late to save their lives and typically will have a stage 4 mesothelioma diagnosis.

Learn more about the latency period of this rare-but-deadly cancer, what factors can impact how slowly the cancer grows in a person’s body and what resources exist for individuals and family members of those diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma Latency Period

Mesothelioma is relatively rare among cancers, being diagnosed about 3,000 times per year in the United States.

The only well-understood cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, which is a naturally occurring mineral used in construction and manufacturing. The substance is very fibrous, which is helpful for use in construction, but these tiny fibers can be accidentally inhaled, leading to organ damage, and for some people, cancer.

Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the mesothelial layer of the inside of a human body. This layer covers most internal organs, including the lungs and heart, as well as the abdomen. Other causes have been studied scientifically, but the only solid connection to the development of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, most often in the workplace.

The latency period between the initial exposure to asbestos and development of mesothelioma ranges from 20 years to more than 70 years (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and the chances of developing mesothelioma does not fade after exposure to asbestos is no longer an issue; rather, these risks are lifelong.

Important Factors

Latency periods are difficult to predict, depending on a range of factors, including age, occupation, gender and lifestyle factors. Here’s a look at a few of those factors and how they can impact both the development of mesothelioma and the latency period:


Perhaps the most crucial connection between mesothelioma and asbestos is the occupation of the cancer patient. That’s most likely because depending on the person’s job, they could have had much more extensive, regular exposure to asbestos with little in the way of protection. While others may have had less exposure for briefer periods.

SEE ALSO: Jobs & Occupations with Highest Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Understanding mortality rates can help us gauge the mesothelioma latency period for different occupations. For example, individuals working with insulation have the highest proportionate mortality rate (CDC), which is most likely connected to their prolonged, direct exposure.

Proportionate mesothelioma mortality rate by job title, select jobs

Job Rate
Insulation workers 26.9
Ship and boat building 6.7
Chemical technicians 4.9
Pipelayers, plumbers and steamfitters 4.8
Petroleum refining 4.1

Duration of exposure

As we’ve already seen with differences in mesothelioma death rates based on occupation, the length and frequency of exposure to asbestos has a huge bearing on mesothelioma. While mesothelioma can take decades to develop, a high-intensity exposure can shorten that considerably.

For instance, many first responders who rushed into the site of the World Trade Center on 9/11 developed mesothelioma just a few years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.


Though it’s not well-understood why, women tend to have longer mesothelioma latency periods than men. In fact, in a British study, the latency period for female asbestos workers was about six years longer for women than for men (British Journal of Cancer).

The study found that female mesothelioma victims had a median latency period of 28.2 years, compared to 22.2 for men, a difference of more than 27%.


As mentioned, the risk of developing mesothelioma is believed to increase with age, even when asbestos exposure stops. However, some research has indicated that people who were exposed at a younger age may have a shorter latency period, though this connection has not been well-established and more study is necessary. The average age at the time of diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma (mesothelioma affects on the chest or lungs) is 72 years old (American Cancer Society).


The presence of other health conditions may impact the latency period of mesothelioma, and studies have linked asbestosis, which is another chronic lung condition caused by exposure to asbestos, to a slightly shorter latency period for mesothelioma.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Sadly, once mesothelioma is diagnosed, most patients do not survive for very long. In fact, studies have indicated that the average survival rate after a diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma is less than one year (PubMed).

Some people who develop mesothelioma are able to undergo successful treatment that extends their lives — by years, in some cases. The biggest factor in the chances of successfully treating mesothelioma is early detection, which is especially difficult with such a slow-growing cancer that has a several-decade latency period.

Most early-stage mesothelioma cases in the lungs are able to be removed or partially removed with surgery, and patients may then undergo radiation or chemotherapy, though this depends on many factors. For mesothelioma cases that occur in the abdomen (peritoneal mesothelioma), surgery may be possible, though it’s more difficult to remove such tumors.

With very early detection, some doctors may recommend monitoring the cancer closely to ensure it isn’t growing rather than having surgery or any other type of treatment, though this would only be recommended for very slow-growing cancers.

Mesothelioma is typically diagnosed based on a person’s symptoms in addition to X-rays or CT scans to check for abnormalities within the body, and further testing, such as biopsy, may be conducted to verify the findings.

Get Mesothelioma Legal Help

Companies have known for years about the dangers of asbestos, and that’s a big reason why the Asbestos Trust Funds were established. Today, those funds hold about $30 billion in possible compensation for individuals and families of those affected by mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases and cancers. Complete the form or call us toll-free (800) 352-0871 to find out how to receive compensation.