The facts

THE FACTS ABOUT CARCINOGENS

So just to put things into context: two million people are the number of combat-related fatalities each year in the first World War – and everyone agrees that was a horrendous carnage. But the reality is: that happens, every year, across the world, with the same amount of workers dying as a consequence of just going to work.” – Kevin Myers

In his speech at the conference on Carcinogens in May 2016, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Kevin Myers makes clear that carcinogens are an important threat to workers’ health in Europe and worldwide.  To illustrate, the direct costs of carcinogen exposure at work across Europe are estimated at 2.4 billion Euros per year. This includes costs for hospitals, primary care, medication, emergency care and outpatient care.

The direct costs of carcinogen exposure at work across Europe are estimated at 2.4 billion Euros per year.

Further, in Spain, in 2014, per day circa 25 people were diagnosed with cancer that was attributable to occupational carcinogen exposure. For Europe, the total number of persons who get cancer from occupational exposure to carcinogens is estimated to cross the 120.000 cases per year limit, causing almost 80.000 deaths per year. Costs for health care expenditure and productivity losses in the EU are estimated as 4-7 billion Euros annually.

For Europe, the total number of persons who get cancer from occupational exposure to carcinogens is estimated to cross the 120.000 cases per year limit, causing almost 80.000 deaths per year.

Clearly, carcinogens are dangerous in many ways. Carcinogen exposure threatens workers’ health and life, but also their participation in work and productivity levels, with adverse effects for companies and employers. Therefore, occupational exposure to carcinogens needs to be prevented or reduced. If appropriate measures are taken at workplace, the burden of cancers could be significantly reduced.

But what exactly are carcinogens?

Carcinogens are substances that may cause cancer. There are several forms of carcinogens, for example chemical carcinogens, such as certain types of pesticides and industrial paint. These chemicals may cause cancer because of their intrinsic properties. In other cases, a particular process may generate exposures such as fine particles in the air from car exhaust or wood dust.
Some carcinogens can be inhaled and may enter, for instance, the bloodstream and the organs, including the brain. Others may enter through the skin. Once carcinogens have entered in the body, they can damage the workers’ DNA or change the ways in which the cells of the bodies work and replicate. This can lead to cancer and other health problems.

Once carcinogens have entered in the body, they can damage the workers’ DNA or change the ways in which the cells of the bodies work and replicate.

Some carcinogens are more dangerous than others, that is why the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluates the risk of various types of carcinogens. For example, there is a category of carcinogens that has been proven to cause cancer in humans (so-called type 1 carcinogens). In category 1, circa 60 substances have been classified that are present or being used in European workplaces. These include, among others, arsenic, phenobarbital, benzene, beryllium, cadmium, Chromium VI, formaldehyde, tar, wood dust, ionising radiation and ultraviolet radiation and biological agents.

There are also carcinogens that are suspected of causing cancer, called type 2a carcinogens, and those of which the relationship between exposure to the carcinogen and the development of cancer is yet unclear (so-called type 2b carcinogens).

Different types of carcinogens can cause different types of cancer

To illustrate, cancers in the digestive tract, such as stomach cancer or colon cancer, can be caused by asbestos, lead components and gamma-radiation, to name a few. Lung cancer is more often caused by, for instance, silica, chromium, asbestos, and diesel exhaust.

Basically everyone can be exposed to carcinogens from time to time, for example when living in busy streets with lots of car exhaust or depending lifestyle factors. However, in case of occupational exposure, the risk of developing cancer is much higher. That is, many workers are being daily exposed to high levels of carcinogens, and this exposure continues through many years of employment. It is important to mention that carcinogen exposure alone is generally not the only factor that contributes to the development of cancer in a worker. For most carcinogens, it matters how a worker is exposed to them, for example in what way, in which doses and for how long. Also, the worker’s genetic makeup, biology or lifestyle may contribute to the development of cancer. Still, carcinogen exposure is a major risk factor for cancer, and therefore, smart solutions to reduce exposure to carcinogens at work are necessary.

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