30 June 2012
Despite cancer death statistics coming down in many areas, it remains a key concern among workers, as was highlighted by recent statistics released following a collaborative effort between healthcare and governmental bodies.
The study was published in the British Journal of Cancer, funded by the Health and Safety Executive and carried out by experts at Imperial College London, who used data compiled by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
The report reveals that 8,000 cancer deaths in Britain each year are linked to occupations, particularly jobs involving asbestos, diesel engine fumes or shift work.
This equates to approximately five per cent of all cancer deaths in Britain and has led to calls for improved awareness of the risks involved in certain jobs and how people can curb these dangers.
According to the data, just under half of all work-related cancer deaths are male construction workers, who are most likely to come into contact with asbestos and other carcinogens such as silica and diesel engine exhaust.
By cross-referencing diagnoses and deaths against a list of cancer-causing substances identified by the IARC, researchers found that around 13,600 new cancer cases are caused by risk factors related to work each year.
Not including asbestos, the main work-related risk factors were found to be night shift-work (which is linked to around 1,960 female breast cancer cases each year), and mineral oil from metal and printing industries (connected to around 1,730 cases of bladder, lung and non-melanoma skin cancers).
After this, sun exposure (linked to around 1,540 skin cancer cases), silica exposure (connected to 910 cancer cases) and diesel engine exhaust (linked to 800 cases) were all major risk factors.
Furthermore, the experts working on the study have warned that these estimates are fairly conservative and could be even higher, as new work-related risk factors are identified and the understanding of potential risk factors increases.
Dr Lesley Rushton, an occupational epidemiologist based at Imperial College London who acted as lead author of the study, pointed out that there were more work-related cancer deaths last year than in 2004, illustrating that it is a growing problem.
"This study gives us a clear insight into how the jobs people do affect their risk of cancer. We hope these findings will help develop ways of reducing health risks caused by exposure to carcinogens in the workplace," she added.
According to the research, the condition with the greatest number of cases and deaths linked to work is lung cancer, perhaps due to the fact that it is hard to detect early and has poor survival rates.
In all, more than 30 occupational exposures have been identified by the IARC as definitely or probably being lung cancer-causing substances.
Dr Rushton noted that the best way to beat the disease is by preventing it in the first place.
Although smoking has the single biggest impact on lung cancer risk, workplace factors are also having a significant effect, she added.
Even though it is no longer used in construction, asbestos remains the most significant occupational risk factor, as maintenance on old buildings containing the material still presents a risk to modern workers.
The study estimates that the number of asbestos-related cancers will continue to rise, as the material's impact on the body can take a long time to manifest.
Researchers also noted that some of the risk factors have an effect on cancer beyond the workplace, as asbestos can be found in some households, while diesel engine exhaust contributes to air pollution – other risk factors that people need to take into account.
Commenting on the report, Sara Hiom, director of information at Cancer Research UK, said it is "very worrying" to see so many people developing and dying from occupation-related cancer.
"A large proportion of the deaths are a result of exposure to asbestos in past decades and improved safety measures should mean that, in the next generation or so, we will see this number tail off dramatically," she added.
Posted by Edward Bartel
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