Are Occupational and Environmental Causes Responsible for Cancer?

Posted on 18. Feb, 2014 by in Health

With cancer having the notoriety of being among the top killer diseases known to humanity, there is no end to the amount of study and research carried out about the disease. The amount of data collected and analyzed is mindboggling and so are the results. An alarming discovery which has been made points out that almost 20% of all cancers are because of environmental factors including occupational factors, and result in more than a million deaths annually.


What are these occupational and environmental factors? What cancers do they cause?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified as many as 107 exposure situations, mixtures and agents as carcinogens. These comprise of asbestos and environmental agents like benzene, cadmium, silica, arsenic present in water, ethylene oxide, benzo(a)pyrene, ionizing radiation, UV radiation, coke production, aluminum production, rubber manufacturing and iron and steel founding. The sad part about occupational risks is that most of them are preventable but are not prevented and continue to expose numerous people to cancer.


Asbestos is a mineral found naturally. It causes severe damage to lungs. More than 100 million people are exposed to asbestos because of the nature of their work. The estimates from WHO point out that more than a hundred thousand people die because of lung cancer related to asbestos.

Mesothelioma and asbestosis are other cancers caused by asbestos exposure. One-third of the deaths from occupational cancers can be linked to asbestos. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer which affects the linings of the abdomen and lungs. 90% of mesothelioma cases can be linked to asbestos.

Other substances

Dye factories, gas works, rubber production and some chemical industries- all use certain chemicals which are associated with bladder cancer. How these chemicals cause cancer may depend on the strength and dose of the chemical as well as the duration of exposure to the chemicals. These chemicals may alter the DNA and trigger cancer growth or may promote the growth of an existing tumor.

Almost 10% of lung cancers are linked to workplace related risks. The most common occupational cancers are bladder cancer, mesothelioma and lung cancer. Very few cancers can be linked to exposure to chemicals in the environment outside the workplace. Identifying and controlling these external factors can help prevent these cancers.

Factors in the environment which increase cancer risk are UV radiation, indoor radon and air pollution. Indoor radon exposure is believed to be behind 3-14% of lung cancers and is the second most important factor behind lung cancer in many parts of the world.

More than 150,000 lung cancer deaths are associated with air pollution, which includes outdoor air pollution, fumes from solid fuel burnt for cooking and heating and second-hand smoke.

UV radiation is responsible for about 60,000 deaths which comprise of melanomas and basal and squamous skin carcinomas.

There could also be chemicals in drinking water which may lead to cancer.


What has the WHO done about it?

The World Health Assembly passed a resolution in 2005, urging nations to devise programs which would reduce the incidence of cancer as well as cancer mortality. These programs would include preventive measures, early and inexpensive detection and screening and better treatment and palliative facilities for cancer patients.

The resolution also proposes paying attention to preventable cancers by avoiding workplace exposure to hazardous chemicals and tobacco smoke. Infectious agents, ionizing, UV radiation also need to be avoided. It also advocates avoiding and reducing exposure to factors like tobacco usage, alcohol abuse, unhealthy diet, excessive exposure to sun, sedentary lifestyle and occupational risk agents.

You can avoid the risk

You can take some preventive steps at an individual level to avoid cancer risk from environmental and occupational factors. Replacing carcinogenic substances with safer substitutes at the workplace is the first step in this direction. Along with that, try to avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight – this is especially important for children. If you are required to stay in the sun for long hours, wear protective clothing, a hat and sunscreen.

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