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Occupations With a Higher Risk of Causing Cancer

We can easily change the products we use and other aspects of our lifestyle to reduce cancer risk factors, but it can be exceedingly difficult to change our occupation. Nowadays, there is a wealth of information available on contributing agents associated with cancer.

Occupational risk of cancer has long been realised by most people. Exposure to various types of radiation, asbestos, carcinogenic chemicals and other hazardous material have often headlined the news. This has helped the public become more aware of the long-term consequences of working in particular industries.

There are multiple occupational factors which contribute to the risk of carcinogenic agents acting on the body:

  • Duration of exposure. Generally, a vast portion of our lives is spent at the workplace.

  • Dose or level of exposure. The concentration of exposure is different for each specific job in a work environment.

  • Timing of exposure. For example, studies show the risk of breast cancer may be higher by being exposed during a time when the breasts are undergoing a critical period of development.

We delved into this subject and found some unexpected occupations which have high incidences of cancer for workers…


A study of 1000 participants performed in Canada (2012), found that women working in the farming industry had elevated exposure to mammary carcinogens in the form of pesticides. The study concluded that out of several industries involved, agricultural workers had exceedingly high cases of breast cancer.

This could be due to the length of time in which workers generally stay in the farming industry and exposure to pesticides, especially in fruit and vegetable farming. Workers in this area were also more likely to start younger, at a pre-pubescent age, wherein carcinogens could adversely affect the development of the reproductive cells.

Vineyard workers were also reported to have higher incidences of lung and skin cancers. Again, there is a strong correlation between cancer development and exposure to pesticides and solar radiation for extended periods.


Australian firefighters are shown to be at an increased risk of prostate, kidney and melanoma cancers as concluded in a study by Monash University, Melbourne (2016). Interestingly, paid firefighters who worked predominately on structural fires in their

careers, perhaps in cities rather than rural areas, experienced a higher cancer risk than those who worked on non-structural fires (eg, bushfires).

On a positive note, and despite the increased risk of occupational cancer, the overall mortality rate for paid firefighters is lower than the general Australian population. This is most likely the effect of a physically active work environment and a fitter lifestyle.

Automotive Plastics, Metal-Working and Food-Canning

In the Canadian study mentioned above, it was found that there were five times the incidences of breast cancer for women working in the Automotive Plastics and Canning industries.

The development of Leukaemia has also been linked to rubber and synthetic latex manufacturing. These industries subject workers to extremely concentrated chemicals, such as benzene and ethylene oxide.

Airline and Night-Shift Workers

A study in Finland (2002) of male airline pilots showed a three-fold increase in risk of skin cancers possibly attributable to cosmic radiation.

The research also uncovered a possible link between pilots who had a long career with elevated incidences of prostate cancer. This last occupational cancer risk was suspected to be a result from prolonged circadian dysrhythmia (disrupted sleep patterns) for long-haul pilots crossing time zones.

There is certainly a need for further research into the subject of transport and night-shift workers and the link to cancer-causing circadian hormonal disturbances.

Other Industries at Risk

There is a significant amount of evidence to suggest workers in the hairdressing, dry-cleaning and construction industries having higher reported incidences of lung cancer. Utilising chemical-free treatment products in these occupations and the improvement of ventilation would aid in decreasing the exposure to carcinogens.

From the list of industries with heightened risk of occupational cancer, it is evident the common factor in most cases is the exposure to harmful chemicals and toxins. Many chemical agents used in the agricultural, automotive plastics, rubber, metal-working and canning industries have been found to cause various types of cancers.

Duration and level of exposure are perhaps the main causes in the likelihood of developing cancers. However, as in farming, it may also be the timing of exposure at specific developmental ages.

It was interesting to note that UV solar radiation was not as large a contributing risk factor in most industries, although airline and agricultural workers did record higher incidences of skin cancer. Sleep disturbances in the transport industries and for night shift workers seem to be a concern over the long-term. Other industries could benefit from filtering out carcinogens in products and improving work environments, specifically ventilation.

For many of us, switching occupations is not an easy option to consider. However, there are most likely several changes you could initiate at work to lower your exposure to harmful chemicals:

  • Adopt a more effective air filtration system to ventilate enclosed spaces,

  • Switch to natural or organic products,

  • Make a habit of taking regular walks outside in the fresh air,

  • Wear a breathing mask with filter,

  • Always use personal protective equipment when dealing with concentrated chemicals (eg; gloves, mask, eye protection),

  • Away from work, ensure you are eating a healthy diet and getting lots of exercise.

Currently, people change careers around five times on average during the course of their lives. It may be that your next career change is just around the corner. If an opportunity comes along, make sure you do your research first to reduce your risk of occupational cancer.


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