Workplace cancer costing 8,000 lives a year

Shift workers

Night shift workers are believed to be at greater risk of developing breast cancer, according to the researchers

Research is the first attempt to quantify the higher cancer risk faced by men and women working in construction and doing shift work, but cancer charities say study is outdated

Carcinogenic substances and demanding shift-work practices may be linked to more cancer fatalities in Britain than previously thought, according to new research.

While UK campaigns have traditionally focussed on higher profile cancer risks such as smoking and diet, a study published in the British Journal of Cancer, suggests that not enough is being done to prevent thousands of potential cases of workplace related cancer every year.

Construction and maintenance workers dealing with asbestos in fire proofing and old buildings and women working night shifts were most at risk, according to the findings.

Asbestos contributed to nearly half of the cancer deaths in the study, but other substances, such as silica found in construction, particles from diesel engine exhausts, and paints and mineral oils in painting and decorating work were all found to present a serious health risk.

Shift work risks

The study is the first attempt to quantify cases of cancer linked to occupation. It found that an estimated 8,019 cancer deaths were 'attributable to occupation' in 2005, approximately 5 per cent of the total cancer deaths in Britain.

The researchers also found that 54 per cent of women diagnosed with work related cancer, especially breast cancer, worked night shifts in sectors such as healthcare and aviation. Disturbance to our natural sleep patterns and fatigue problems are all associated with night shifts and may contribute to the higher cancer risk.

The study noted that in 2009 Danish courts began paying compensation to night shift workers who developed breast cancer, recognising it as an occupational disease.

The findings follow a report published by the US National Cancer Institute last month which said the cancer risk associated with environmental hazards, such as chemicals commonly found in the workplace, had been greatly underestimated.

Lead author Dr Lesley Rushton, of Imperial College London, said while carcinogen exposure levels have fallen over the years, more than one million people in the UK are still thought to be exposed to cancer-causing substances in their workplace.

The study pointed out the risk of low-level exposure and said that for many of the carcinogens a major contribution to the burden was made by a large number of workers exposed at 'low levels and low risk', for which our quantitative risk estimates are inevitably uncertain.

'Our study has highlighted the fact that many workers may potentially be exposed to several carcinogens and that these may affect multiple cancer sites,' said the study.

Study outdated

However, cancer charities say the study may be outdated as chemical exposure in the workplace would have been 'considerably higher' in the years from which the study drew its data in comparison to today's levels.

Dr Joanna Owens, Cancer Research UK’s science information manager, also said the link between shift work and breast cancer was still uncertain.

'When it comes to shift work and breast cancer, it’s still not known whether it can actually cause the disease, or whether shift workers are more prone to other things that increase their risk. Known breast cancer risks include lack of exercise, being overweight and drinking alcohol,' she said.

Useful links

Study in full: Occupation and cancer in Britain

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