The aim of this study is to investigate immunoreactivity for p53, p21 and metallothionein in diffuse malignant pleural mesothelioma (DMPM) and to determine the relationships between the age, sex, asbestos exposure time, survival of DMPM patients with environmental asbestos exposure and immunoreactivity to p53, p21 and metallothionein. Sixty-seven histopathologically-confirmed DMPMs, 38 of whom had environmental and 29 had occupational asbestos exposure, were included. The tumour tissue samples were immunostained with antibodies against p53, p21 and metallothionein. Epidemiological data and the survival times for the DMPM patients with environmental asbestos exposures were obtained from hospital records. Thirty-three per cent of the DMPMs were positive for p53, 35% for p21 and 52% for metallothionein. There was no statistical difference between the histological subtypes of DMPM in terms of immunoreactivity for p53, p21 and metallothionein. For p21 and metallothionein there was a statistically significant difference between the exposure characteristics: patients with environmental asbestos exposure had shown more immunopositivity. There were statistically significant differences between age groups and between asbestos exposure times for metallothionein, and between asbestos exposure times and p21. The patients with positive immunostaining had longer exposure times and were older than those having negative immunostaining. The differences between survival of the patients were not statistically significant in terms of the immunohistochemical results for p53, p21 and metallothionein. © 2001 Harcourt Publishers Ltd.