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OBJECTIVES—To investigate whether occupational exposures to formaldehyde and wood dust increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC).
METHODS—A multicentred, population based case-control study was carried out at five cancer registries in the United States participating in the National Cancer Institute's SEER program. Cases (n=196) with a newly diagnosed NPC between 1987 and 1993, and controls (n=244) selected over the same period from the general population through random digit dialing participated in structured telephone interviews which inquired about suspected risk factors for the disease, including a lifetime history of occupational and chemical exposure. Histological type of cancer was abstracted from clinical records of the registries. Potential exposure to formaldehyde and wood dust was assessed on a job by job basis by experienced industrial hygienists who were blinded as to case or control status.
RESULTS—For formaldehyde, after adjusting for cigarette use, race, and other risk factors, a trend of increasing risk of squamous and unspecified epithelial carcinomas was found for increasing duration (p=0.014) and cumulative exposure (p=0.033) but not for maximum exposure concentration. The odds ratio (OR) for people cumulatively exposed to >1.10 ppm-years was 3.0 (95% confidence interval (95% CI) 1.3 to 6.6) compared with those considered unexposed. In analyses limited to jobs considered definitely exposed, these trends became stronger. The associations were most evident among cigarette smokers. By contrast, there was no association between potential exposure to formaldehyde and undifferentiated and non-keratinising carcinomas. There was little evidence that exposure to wood dust increased risk of NPC, as modest crude associations essentially disappeared after control for potential exposure to formaldehyde.
CONCLUSIONS—These results support the hypothesis that occupational exposure to formaldehyde, but not wood dust, increases risk of NPC. This association seems to be specific to squamous cell carcinomas. Established cohorts of workers exposed to formaldehyde and wood dust should continue to be monitored for NPC and other respiratory cancers. Future studies of NPC should take into account histological type in assessing risk from environmental and host factors.
Keywords: occupational exposure; formaldehyde; wood dust