Firefighting causes cancer

Two US studies reported increased incidence of certain cancers among male firefighters. An investigation of cancer cases in the US state of Massachussetts between 1982 and 1986 found the incidence of melanoma was three times greater in firefighters than in other occupations. Bladder cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma were also more frequent among firefighters, with an incidence that was 1.6 times that of other occupations. A second study looked only at cases of cancer that resulted in death. One 2,000 Seattle firefighters employed between 1945 and 1983 were investigated. Compared to other occupations, the researchers found increases in deaths among firefighters from the blood cancers leukaemia and myeloma. For firefighters with at least 30 years service, death from leukaemia was increases five times and myeloma nine times. The authors of both studies identified benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and asbestos as key carcinogen exposures. A third report looking at birth defects in the offspring of firefighers identified about 50 chemical exposures faced by firefighters, many of the substances linked to cancer. Many jurisdictions, notably in the US, Canada and Australia, have since introduced presumptive legislation, granting compensation automatically to many firefighters suffering a number of named cancers. In 2015, no such compensation was available to firefighters in the UK.

SR Sama and others. Cancer incidence among Massachussetts firefighters, 1982-86, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, volume 18, issue 1, pages 47-54, 1990.
N Heyer and others. Cohort mortality study of Seattle firefighters: 1945-1983, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, volume 17, issue 4, pages 493-504, 1990.
AF Olshan and others. Birth defects among offspring of firemen, American Journal of Epidemiology, volume 131, pages 312-321, 1990.

Vehicle exhaust fumes at work linked to lung cancer

The association between employment in motor exhaust-related occupations and the risk for lung cancer was examined in 2,291 male cases of lung cancer and 2,570 controls in data pooled from three US case control studies carried out by the National Cancer Institute between 1976 and 1983. The researchers concluded that workers in motor-exhaust related occupations had a 50 per cent higher rate of lung cancer than in other occupations, after accounting for smoking. The authors note: “The 50 per cent excess risk for lung cancer associated with employment in motor exhaust-related occupations could not be explained by greater use of cigarettes or by other occupational exposures among these workers.”

R Hayes and others. Lung cancer in motor exhaust-related occupations, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, volume 16, number 6, pages 685-695, 1989.

Paternal exposure to EMFs and cancer in offspring

Researchers in the US identified a link between paternal exposure to low frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs) at work and higher rates of nervous system cancers in their offspring. The study investigated 499 childhood nervous system cancers occurring in Texas over a 17 year period, comparing them to 998 randomly selected controls. Children who had died of these cancers were 1.6 times more likely to have had fathers whose work involved exposure to low frequency EMFs. Highlighted occupations were electricians, where the odds ratio was 3.5, and those involved in electronic component manufacture and assembly. The authors noted: “The additional presence of chemical exposures in these diverse occupations and industries must also be considered.”

CC Johnson and MR Splitz. Childhood nervous system tumours: An Assessment of Risk Associated with Paternal Occupations Involving Use, Repair or Manufacture of Electrical and Electronic Equipment, International Journal of Epidemiology, volume 18, number 4, pages 756-762, 1989.

Petroleum refining jobs linked to cancer

Petroleum refinery workers have an excess of skin cancer and leukaemia, with this work rated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as probably carcinogenic in humans (group 2A). Petrol, heavy fuel oil and marine diesel were classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans (group 2B), with some evidence of excess of cancer of the stomach and pancreas (petrol) and lung and prostate (diesel). IARC found there was insufficient evidence to categorise jet fuels, light fuel oils and crude oil as human carcinogens, despite supportive animal evidence.

Occupational exposure in petroleum refining: Crude oil and major petroleum fuels, Monograph volume 45, IARC, 1989.

COSHH makes chemical risk assessments the law

The UK Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1988 (COSHH) became law in October 2008 and took effect on 1 January 1990. The law covered all workplaces where hazardous substances are used or arise as byproducts. They require substances to have been subjected to a risk assessment prior to use, prompting Hazards magazine to advise in September 1989: “No assessment by 1 January 1990 – no work with hazardous substances.” It told workplace safety reps: “Get trained, get organised, get geared up for COSHH.” The magazine warned that what should have been the most important piece of health and safety legislation since the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act would not be because it would not be adequately enforced. It said though that the new regulations “provide a good basis for safety reps to negotiate the control of hazardous substances at their workplace.”

Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations factsheet, Hazards, number 25, September 1989. HSE COSHH webpages.

No prescription for cancer of the larynx

In August 1989 the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, decided there was “insufficient evidence to recommend prescription” of cancer of the larynx, which would have meant some sufferers who working in linked occupations or who at related exposures at work would be eligible for state compensation. Many occupational exposures have been linked to cancer of the larynx, including metalworking fluids and mineral oils; natural fibres including asbestos; some evidence for wood dust; exposure to reactive chemicals including sulphuric acids. There have also been excesses reported in rubber workers, nickel refining, and mustard gas and chemical production.

Cancer of the Larynx, Cm 779, IIAC, August 1989.


US introduces the asbestos ban that never was

In December 1986, US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) EPA published a proposal under section 6 of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) “to prohibit the manufacture, importation, and processing of asbestos in certain products and to phase out the use of asbestos in all other products.” The Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule was finalised in July 1989, but was struck down in federal court in 1991 after an industry challenge and never took effect.


Restrictions and Proposed Manufacturing, Importation, and Processing Prohibitions, Federal Register 3738 (29 January 1986).
Corrosion ProofFittings, et al v. EPA, 947 F.2d 1201 (5th Cir. 1991).
David Michaels and Celeste Monforton. How litigation shapes the scientific literature, Journal of Law and Policy, volume 15, issue 3, pages 1137-1169, 2007.

Working as a painter causes cancer

The International Agency for Researcher on Cancer evaluated the occupation of “painter” as a top rated group 1 carcinogen. As well as concluding “occupational exposure as a painter is carcinogenic”, IARC said there was “inadequate” evidence for the carcinogenicity of occupational exposures in paint manufacture. The conclusion on painters was based on three large studies and on national cancer statistics. These indicated that for all cancers painters were about 20 per cent above the average and for lung cancers this increased to a 40 per cent higher rate of developing the disease.

IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, volume 47, Some organic solvents, resin monomers and related compounds, pigments and occupational Exposures in paint manufacture and painting, 1989

A bomb work linked to cancers

A study found cancer excesses in workers involved in atomic bomb research at the UK’s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE). The study involved 20,000 workers employed since 1950 and found clear radiation-related excess risks of prostate and lung cancers, and some evidence of an increased risk of kidney cancer. Earlier studies had identified raised rates of prostate cancer in UK nuclear power workers employed at the Sellafield plant, where excesses of the blood cancers myeloma and leukaemia were also found. The blood cancer excesses were not identified at the AWRE sites, were radiation exposures were typically less than one-tenth those at power plant.

Valerie Beral and others. Mortality of employees at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, 1951-1982, British Medical Journal, volume 297, number 6651, pages 757-770, 24 September 1988.

Official US alert on diesel exhaust cancer link

The US government’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended in1988 that diesel exhaust fumes should be regarded as potentially carcinogenic. A Current Intelligence Bulletin noted: “On the basis of the results of these studies, NIOSH recommends that whole diesel exhaust be regarded as ‘a potential occupational carcinogen,’ as defined in the Cancer Policy of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (“Identification, Classification, and Regulation of Potential Occupational Carcinogens,” 29 CFR 1990). This recommendation is based on findings of carcinogenic and tumorigenic responses in rats and mice exposed to whole diesel exhaust. Though the excess risk of cancer in diesel-exhaust-exposed workers has not been quantitatively estimated, it is logical to assume that reductions in exposure to diesel exhaust in the workplace would reduce the excess risk.” The bulletin added: “NIOSH recommends that producers of diesel engines disseminate this current information to their customers, and that users of diesel-powered equipment disseminate this current information to their workers. NIOSH also recommends that professional and trade associations and unions inform their members of the new findings of potential carcinogenic hazards of exposure to diesel engine emissions, and that all available preventive efforts (including available engineering controls and work practices) be vigorously implemented to minimize exposure of workers to diesel exhaust.” In 2012, IARC reclassified diesel exhaust fumes as proven cause of cancer in humans. Had NIOSH’s recommendations on preventive action been acted on 24 years earlier, then many of the many hundreds of UK deaths each year attributed to occupational diesel exhaust exposure could have been avoided. [also see: HSE falls 1,000 short on diesel cancer deaths estimate, December 2013].

Carcinogenic effects of exposure to diesel emissions, NIOSH Current Intelligence Bulletin, Number 50, August 1988.

A continually-updated, annotated bibliography of occupational cancer research produced by Hazards magazine, the Alliance for Cancer Prevention and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).