Is There a Link Between Gastrointestinal Cancer and Asbestos?

It is likely that there is a link between gastrointestinal cancer and asbestos exposure. Asbestos does not just affect the lungs, as is most commonly known, but the gastrointestinal tract and heart as well, in addition to other bodily systems. A single asbestos fiber can splinter into many more smaller fibers, a process which occurs again and again. As the fibers become smaller, the risk of human exposure increases. It is not difficult to understand how these tiny yet resilient fibers can travel throughout the body, becoming lodged in different areas along the way.


Types of Gastrointestinal Cancers

Types of GI cancers include colon, rectal, intestinal, liver, gallbladder, pancreatic and stomach. Studies have shown a link between gastrointestinal cancer and asbestos exposure since at least the 1970s. The concept is not difficult to understand: asbestos is a carcinogen and it has been proven to become lodged in the gastrointestinal tract. Read about three of the most current studies below which show this correlation as well. However, multiple studies throughout the years have shown contradictory results.


Current Studies


  • Occupational asbestos exposure and digestive cancers – a cohort study 1

This study aimed to determine the existence or nonexistence of a link between digestive cancers and occupational asbestos exposure. The results included an elevated incidence of these cancers, including cancer of the small intestine for men. The most significant increased incidence occurred when men were exposed to asbestos for more than 25 years throughout their occupation at an amount of four fibers/mL.


This study concluded that asbestos, as a result of any type of exposure, results in a small increase in the risk of stomach cancer. Other types of GI cancers — intestinal, esophageal, and laryngeal — exhibited an increased risk as well. However, compared to pulmonary cancers, GI cancers have a much smaller risk of occurrence.


  • Non-pulmonary Outcomes of Asbestos Exposure 3

This study focused on the non-pulmonary outcomes of asbestos exposure because the pulmonary outcomes are so well understood. This study reviewed gastrointestinal risk as well as the risk to reproductive, immune and peritoneum systems. Stomach cancer was identified as the greatest non-pulmonary risk due to asbestos exposure, whether naturally occurring or not. However, the study cautions that the link is limited and identifies chrysotile asbestos fibers as more dangerous than crocidolite fibers.



Asbestos lungs

Asbestos lungs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Multiple current studies — not to mention numerous past studies from the 1970s onward — indicate a correlation between gastrointestinal cancer and asbestos exposure. However, others do not, the results proving to be mixed. Asbestos, when inhaled or ingested, has been proven to become lodged in every part of the GI tract, as well as the heart. It is reasonable to say that no part of this area of the body is untouched by the destructive power of the resilient asbestos fiber, although definitive proof of cancer has not yet been established.



1  Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2009 Aug 15;30(4):364-74. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2036.2009.04050.x. Epub 2009 May 26.


2 Kim et al., J Gastroint Dig Syst 2013, 3:3


3 J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2011 Jan-Jun; 14(1-4): 122–152. Published online Jun 2, 2011. doi: 10.1080/10937404.2011.556048