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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 May 5; 334(7600): 925.
PMCID: PMC1865426

Occupational cancer kills more than 200 000 people a year

More than 200 000 people, most of them in the developed world, die each year from a workplace related cancer, the World Health Organization has said in a press release.

A major rise in the incidence of occupational cancer can be expected in developing countries in the coming decades as work processes involving the use of carcinogens shift to countries with less stringent enforcement of occupational health standards, WHO warns. These processes involve substances such as chrysotile asbestos and pesticides and those used in production of tyres and dyes.

The developed world presently has a higher rate of occupational cancer, the result of the wide use 20 to 30 years ago of various carcinogenic substances such as blue asbestos, 2-naphthylamine, and benzene, it adds. These countries now have much tighter controls on the presence of these known carcinogens in the workplace.

Asbestos, second hand smoke, and benzene are the carcinogens that people are most commonly exposed to at work. Lung cancer, mesothelioma, bladder cancer, and leukaemia are the most common cancers resulting from occupational exposure to carcinogens, it says.

More than 125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos at work, and at least 90 000 die each year from asbestos related diseases. A 10th of lung cancer deaths are closely related to risks in the workplace, and workers who are heavily exposed to second hand tobacco smoke at their workplaces are twice as likely as those working in a smoke free environment to develop lung cancer.

Thousands of people working in the chemical and diamond industries die from leukaemia caused by exposure to benzene, which is widely used by workers as an organic solvent in such industries.

WHO says that prevention of exposure to carcinogens in the workplace may be the most efficient way to prevent cancer. “The control of carcinogens in the workplace should be a key component of every national cancer control programme,” said Andreas Ullrich, WHO's medical officer for cancer control.

To protect workers from occupational cancer, WHO recommends stopping the use of asbestos; introducing benzene-free organic solvents and technologies that convert the carcinogenic form of chromium into a non-carcinogenic form; banning smoking in the workplace; and providing protective clothes for people who work in the sun. These simple interventions could prevent hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and suffering from occupational cancer, it adds.

Recently WHO issued an official statement warning countries to stop using asbestos or face an epidemic of cancer in the coming years. It suggested using pine fibres in producing cement building materials as a safe alternative to asbestos.

Articles from The BMJ are provided here courtesy of BMJ Publishing Group