BACKGROUND: Malignant mesothelioma is a rare pleural tumour associated with asbestos exposure. The proportion of malignant mesothelioma unrelated to asbestos exposure, and any differentiating features between exposed and unexposed cases, are not well described. This study describes occupational, clinical, and pathological features in a large cohort of cases of malignant mesothelioma from south east England. METHODS: All 272 cases from this region were studied, either in life or after death when necropsy examination suggested malignant mesothelioma. Detailed information was gathered regarding the occupational history, clinical course, and mode of death. Necropsies were performed in 98% of cases. Lung tissue was examined histologically to confirm the diagnosis, subtype of tumour, presence or absence of asbestosis and asbestos bodies. RESULTS: Exposure to asbestos was documented in 87% of cases, while in the remainder, no asbestos exposure was found nor were asbestos bodies seen; 94.5% were pleural, 5.1% peritoneal, and 0.4% pericardial. Right sided tumours were more common than left sided tumours (ratio 1.6:1). Patients usually presented with breathlessness and chest pain, but 33% presented with pleural effusion in the absence of chest pain. The mean (SD) time from first exposure to asbestos to symptoms was 40 (12) years with a median (interquartile range (IQR) survival of 14 (12.5) months. The median (IQR) survival time in sarcomatous, epithelial, and mixed cell type malignant mesothelioma was 9.4 (10) months, 12.5 (18) months, and 11 (14) months, respectively, and was significantly greater in cases detected by chance. Clinical features were similar in asbestos related and non-asbestos related malignant mesothelioma. CONCLUSIONS: In south east England most cases of malignant mesothelioma are associated with asbestos exposure. Clinical features do not differentiate between asbestos related and non-asbestos related disease.