WHO Calls for Prevention of Occupational Cancer Exposure

EVERY year, at least 200,000 people die from cancer related to their workplace, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

April 28 was World Day for Safety and Health at Work. Millions of workers run the risk of developing cancers such as lung cancer and mesothelioma (a malignant cancer of the internal lining of the chest cavity) from inhaling asbestos fibers and from tobacco smoke, or leukemia from exposure to benzene at their workplaces. Yet, the risks for occupational cancer are preventable.

Lung cancer, mesothelioma and bladder cancer are among the most common types of occupational cancers, WHO states. Every tenth lung cancer death is closely related to risks in the workplace. Currently about 125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos at work, and at least 90,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases. Thousands more die from leukemia caused by exposure to benzene, an organic solvent widely used by workers, including in the chemical and diamond industries.

The rates of occupational cancer exposure are highest among workers whose workplaces do not meet the requirements for health and safety protection and do not have the necessary engineering measures to prevent the pollution of air with carcinogenic substances. For example, workers who are heavily exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke at their workplaces have double the risk of developing lung cancer compared to those working in a smoke-free environment.

"The tragedy of occupational cancer resulting from asbestos, benzene and other carcinogens is that it takes so long for science to be translated into protective action," said Dr Maria Neira, WHO director of public health and environment. "Known and preventable exposures are clearly responsible for hundreds of thousands of excess cancer cases each year. In the interests of protecting our health, we must adopt an approach rooted in primary prevention -- that is to make workplaces free from carcinogenic risks."

Currently, most cancer deaths caused by occupational risk factors occur in the developed world. This is a result of the wide use of different carcinogenic substances such as blue asbestos, 2-naphthylamine and benzene 20 to 30 years ago. Today, there are much tighter controls on these known carcinogens in the workplace in developed countries. However, work processes involving the use of carcinogens such as chrysotile asbestos and pesticides are moving to countries with less stringent enforcement of occupational-health standards. If the current unregulated use of carcinogens in developing countries continues, a significant increase in occupational cancer can be expected in the coming decades, WHO states.

"The control of carcinogens in the workplace should be a key component of every national cancer-control program," said Dr Andreas Ullrich, WHO medical officer for cancer control. "To achieve this, WHO supports countries in developing comprehensive national cancer prevention and control plans, which are essential to prevent millions of cancer deaths each year."

To protect workers from occupational cancer, WHO urges governments and industry to ensure that workplaces are equipped with adequate measures to meet health and safety standards and that they be free from dangerous pollutants. The most efficient way to prevent occupational cancer is to avoid exposure to carcinogens. Some of the simple interventions that can prevent hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and suffering from occupational cancer are:

  • Stop the use of asbestos.
  • Introduce benzene-free organic solvents and technologies that convert the carcinogenic chromium into a non-carcinogenic form.
  • Ban tobacco use at the workplace.
  • Provide protective clothes for people working in the sun.

WHO provides policy recommendations to help countries stop the use of carcinogens in the workplace, and provides health ministries with the latest information to frame health arguments and legislation to rid workplaces of carcinogens. Recently, WHO issued an official statement warning countries to stop using asbestos or face a cancer epidemic in the coming years.

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