Mesothelioma has an extremely long latency period. The term “latency” in a medical context refers to the period of time between the start of a disease and the point at which the symptoms make themselves apparent.

It Can Take Decades for Symptoms to Appear

The mesothelioma latency period is usually estimated as being roughly between 15 and 40 years, though there have been cases in which the latency was as short as five years or as long as 50 years after the exposure to asbestos occurred.

For instance, an emergency medical technician in New York City’s fire department died of mesothelioma in early 2006, about five years after she incurred very heavy asbestos exposure by working as a first responder at the World Trade Center after Sept. 11, 2001. However, her case was rather unusual in that her work involved breathing in very high levels of airborne asbestos fibers at Ground Zero.

Most other mesothelioma cancer patients have been subjected to asbestos at somewhat lower levels but for much longer periods of time. Persons who worked in asbestos-heavy jobs such as mining and shipbuilding or who spent their military service working with asbestos products have shown latencies that date from the 1940s (during World War II).

The Latency Depends on the Type of Asbestos Exposure

The mesothelioma latency period is often dependent on which of three groups a patients belongs to:

  • Individuals with high levels of exposure of a short duration
  • Those with high levels of exposure of long duration
  • Those with low levels of exposure of long duration

The last in this group is most likely to have the longest mesothelioma latency period. Those with higher exposure often have shorter latency periods.

Factors That Affect the Latency Period for Mesothelioma

Latency Period and Dose Response Relation

If you are exposed to very high levels of asbestos for even a short period of time, this can cause a shorter latency period. Some mesothelioma cases have occurred with just a few months of exposure to asbestos – if that exposure was heavy enough. Because of this fact, people who are at risk of having high exposure and shorter latency periods often are first responders in disaster areas. For example, as noted above, workers who helped in the clean up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and also during Hurricane Katrina may develop mesothelioma from short term, very high exposure to asbestos.

Experts expect that we will see a higher number of mesothelioma cases from 9/11 and Katrina first responders.


At least 70 occupations put workers at risk for mesothelioma and asbestos exposure generally. Certain occupations can expose workers to especially high levels of asbestos. People who have a great deal of asbestos exposure – either a high level for a short period or a moderate level for years – could have shorter latency periods. Higher risk occupations include:

  • Asbestos mining/processing
  • Insulation
  • Boiler maintenance
  • Factories
  • Power plants
  • Textile mills

Secondhand Exposure

This occurs when a person who is directly exposed then accidentally exposes another person to asbestos due to the fibers on his clothes or body. People who work in dangerous industries could bring the toxic fibers into their homes each day. This poses a real risk to others in the home. Low level asbestos exposure such as this over many years can result in a longer latency period, but mesothelioma can still occur.

There have been documented cases where the wives of workers have contracted mesothelioma, most likely due to handling the clothes of the worker.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health told Congress in 1995 that the health consequences of household asbestos contamination are serious and real. This organization reported that they had cases on file of family members who had gotten mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.


Some cancer researchers believe that the latency period is longer for pleural mesothelioma, which is about 30-50 years. The latency period for other types of mesothelioma is from 20-40 years.


Women have a latency period on average of 53 years, which is about five years longer than men. Researchers think this is because women usually have a lower exposure level than men; men tend to work in industries that directly expose them to asbestos, while women are exposed to asbestos second hand at home.


Researchers think that younger people have longer latency periods because their immune system is stronger. Meanwhile, people exposed in their 40s or 50s may have shorter latency periods because their immune system is weaker.

Who Is At Risk?

Mesothelioma patients are often between 40 and 60 years old. While children can have mesothelioma, it is rare, occurring in less than 5 percent of all cases. Patients older than 70 are particularly at risk. In the 1960s, asbestos was very common, so individuals working in certain industries at that time should watch for any potential symptoms now.

More Information about Mesothelioma Latency

Because of its extremely long latency period compared to other cancers, victims sometimes don’t realize that they may have had exposure for which a company may be directly responsible. If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related illness, contact a lawyer to discuss treatment and legal options. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the legal landscape through this difficult time. Contact Mesothelioma Treatment Centers for assistance today.