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Occupation and Cancer Risk

occupational cancer 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    TOP

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    TOP

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    TOP

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

Cancer Substances or Processes
Lung Arsenic, asbestos, cadmium, coke oven fumes, chromium compounds, coal gasification, nickel refining, foundry substances, radon, soot, tars, oils, silica
Bladder Aluminum production, rubber industry, leather industry, textile industry, 4-aminobiphenyl, benzidine
Nasal cavities and sinuses Formaldehyde, isopropyl alcohol manufacture, mustard gas, nickel refining, leather dust, wood dust
Larynx (voice box) Asbestos, isopropyl alcohol, mustard gas
Pharynx (throat) Formaldehyde, mustard gas
Mesothelioma (type of lung cancer) Asbestos
Lymphatic and hematopoietic (blood cell producing) system Benzene, ethylene oxide, herbicides, radiation
Skin Arsenic, coal tars, mineral oils, sunlight
Soft-tissue sarcoma Chlorophenols, chlorophenoxy herbicides
Liver Arsenic, vinyl chloride
Lip Sunlight

What Can You Do to Decrease Your Risk?    TOP

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.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

International Agency for Research on Cancer


BC Cancer Agency

Canadian Cancer Society


American Cancer Society. Occupation and cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated January 2016. Accessed February 19, 2016.

Causes and prevention. National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed February 19, 2016.

Occupational cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated November 3, 2015. Accessed February 19, 2016.

Last reviewed February 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 5/6/2014

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