Occupation and Cancer Risk
En Español (Spanish Version)

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to establish a link between occupation and cancer risk. A small percentage of chemicals used in commerce have been tested for their potential to cause cancer. It is estimated that between 4%-10% of cancers in the United States are caused by occupational exposure. But, the risk of developing cancer is influenced by a number of factors that are not clearly understood. Read on to find out more.

General Risk Factors for Cancer
According to the National Institute for Occupation Health and Safety (NIOSH), a person’s risk for developing cancer may be influenced by a combination of the following factors:

  • Personal characteristics, such as race and gender
  • Family history of cancer
  • Lifestyle factors and personal habits, such as diet, smoking , and alcohol consumption
  • Certain medical conditions
  • Exposure to cancer-causing agents in the environment
  • Exposure to cancer-causing agents in the workplace
These factors may act together or in sequence to cause cancer.

Establishing a Link
Sometimes, a number of people in a workplace will develop cancer within a relatively short period of time. However, this does not necessarily indicate that there is a cancer risk in the workplace. Cancer is a common disease, affecting over a million Americans each year.

In an effort to identify the role of possible occupational factors and cancer, scientists investigate cancer clusters. Clusters are defined as an unusual concentration of cancer cases in a defined area or time, according to NIOSH. Clusters may have a common cause or may be the coincidental occurrence of unrelated causes.

When evaluating a cancer cluster in the workplace, scientists tend to look for the following:

  • Several cases of the same type of cancer, especially if it is not common in the general population
  • The presence of a known or suspected cancer-causing agent, and, the occurrence of types of cancers that have been linked with exposures to these agents in other settings
  • Past exposures to possible cancer-causing agents in the workplace (often difficult to document)
Investigating cancer clusters poses many challenges for researchers. It is often difficult to make a clear connection between cancer and environmental or workplace factors.

Cancers Associated With Occupational Exposures
The American Cancer Society (ACS) offers this table of substances or types of work that have been associated with the development of cancer:

CancerSubstances or ProcessesLungArsenic, asbestos, cadmium, coke oven fumes, chromium compounds, coal gasification, nickel refining, foundry substances, radon, soot, tars, oils, silicaBladderAluminum production, rubber industry, leather industry, textile industry, 4-aminobiphenyl, benzidineNasal cavities and sinusesFormaldehyde, isopropyl alcohol manufacture, mustard gas, nickel refining, leather dust, wood dustLarynx (voice box)Asbestos, isopropyl alcohol, mustard gasPharynx (throat)Formaldehyde, mustard gasMesothelioma (type of lung cancer)AsbestosLymphatic and hematopoietic (blood cell producing) systemBenzene, ethylene oxide, herbicides, x-radiation systemSkinArsenic, coal tars, mineral oils, sunlightSoft-tissue sarcomaChlorophenols, chlorophenoxy herbicidesLiverArsenic, vinyl chlorideLipSunlight
What Can You Do to Decrease Your Risk?
Identifying occupational risks for cancer is an ongoing process. Since it is often difficult to know if we are being exposed to cancer risks in the workplace, the best we can do is use the knowledge already at hand, and control the risk factors that we know we can control.

For example, we are largely in control of diet, smoking, alcohol use, and exposure to known cancer-causing agents. We can also get regular medical check-ups and follow the national guidelines regarding cancer screening tests.

International Agency for Research on Cancer

The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety


Canadian Cancer Society

American Cancer Society. Occupation and cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@nho/documents/document/occupationandcancerpdf.pdf. Updated February 2014. Accessed May 6, 2014.

Occupational cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/cancer. Updated May 2, 2014. Accessed May 6, 2014.

Cancer causes and risk factors. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/causes. Accessed on May 6, 2014.

Last Reviewed May 2014

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