Amy Scholten, MPH
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.
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:
These factors may act together or in sequence to cause cancer.
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:
Investigating cancer clusters poses many challenges for researchers. It is often difficult to make a clear connection between cancer and environmental or workplace factors.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) offers this table of substances or types of work that have been associated with the development of cancer:
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: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@nho/documents/document/occupationandcancerpdf.pdf. Updated January 2016. Accessed February 19, 2016.
Causes and prevention.
National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/causes. Accessed February 19, 2016.
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 November 3, 2015. Accessed February 19, 2016.
Last reviewed February 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
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