Hidden dangers in familiar occupations might be leading workers toward a deadly cancer diagnosis.
Could your job be killing you? A 2017 study out of the University of Montreal found that work-related stress has been linked to an increased likelihood of lung, colon, rectal, and stomach cancer, as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Some occupations, like firefighting, are obviously stressful, but things like fears of job insecurity at start- ups, frequent run-ins with irate customers in customer service jobs, and even difficult commutes (from suburbs to city and back again) can all contribute to work-related stress that may ultimately cause cancer.
The Montreal study examined 3,103 men from 11 different workplaces and found that “prolonged exposure” (meaning 15 years or more) to workplace stress was associated with greater odds of cancer at five of the workplaces. This was one of the first studies of its kind, and the report concludes that prospective studies are necessary. Here, we more closely examine
four occupations—some with obvious risk, and some without—that have been known to cause cancer.
There are a number of toxins that school teachers might be exposed to—asbestos in the walls, carbon dioxide in the air, and lead in the drinking water, to name a few—which are usually a result of outdated infrastructure. Because teachers are often working in the same building for decades at a time, their risk of cancer is higher than that of the students who usually only spend one to six years in the same building.
According to a December 2015 report from the office of Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, was first identified as a hazardous air pollutant in 1971. The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) was enacted in 1986 to protect the nation’s students, teachers, and school staff from asbestos exposure. However, the office’s findings do little to quell fears.
“Nearly 30 years have passed since AHERA became law, yet the extent of asbestos remaining in schools is largely unknown,” the report states. The report gathered data from 20 U.S. states—the remaining 30 did not respond to the office’s request for information— and ascertained that AHERA guidelines are not being properly enforced. In addition, “A majority of responding states (eight of fifteen) were unable to articulate a clear schedule used to inspect or audit each local education agency to detect asbestos hazards.”
This is best reflected closer to home, in the state of Illinois: In March 2016, WGN reported that nearly 200 Chicago schools “have some sort of asbestos risk to teachers and students.” But a May 2017 joint report from Univision Chicago and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University revealed that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) wasn’t taking necessary action to protect students, teachers, and administrative staff. Investigative journalist Adriana Cardona-Maguigad shared that only 11 of the nearly 200 schools followed up with inspectors’ recommendations to update CPS facilities. Because of this, paired with the fact that asbestos-containing products are still used in construction today, it would be safe to say that America’s teachers are still at risk, with little changes likely in the near future.
It was Sarah Maslin Nir’s scathing, Pulitzer-nominated piece in The New York Times documenting the travesties of New York City’s nail industry that first brought to light the health risks of nail salons—not for those who visit the salon for a manicure a few times a month, but for the employees who are often working as many as 10 hours a day, up to seven days a week.
“The Price of Nice Nails” examines the various jobs available to the mostly young Asian and Hispanic women who staff NYC’s 2,000 salons—some of these women are “experts” at creating false nails, usually made of acrylic dust. “It is the most lucrative salon job, yet many younger manicurists avoid it because of the specter of serious health issues, including miscarriages and cancer, associated with inhaling fumes and clouds of plastic particles,” the article states.
A June 2019 study from Environmental Pollution notes Colorado nail salon technicians’ exposure to “volatile organic compounds,” known as VOCs, lead to numerous adverse health effects—including cancer. They found that 70 percent of surveyed workers experienced at least one health issue due to their work as nail technicians. Which is no surprise: “In general, concentrations of aromatic compounds measured [in the salons] were comparable to those measured in studies of oil refinery and auto garage workers,” the article states. Long-term exposure to benzene, one of these “aromatic compounds,” has been proven to cause leukemia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Benzene exposure can also harmfully affect bone marrow and red blood cells, weaken the immune system, and result in irregular menstruation in women.
This is why nail salons like Chicago’s Ezza are becoming more prevalent around the country. Ezza’s founder, Ale Breuer, became passionate about creating a business that was ethical and safe for her employees. Ezza does not offer acrylic nails, and they also use polishes that are vegan, organic, and cruelty-free. “One of the things I’ve learned, beyond wage exploitation and toxic work environments, is the toxicity that nail technicians were exposed to as part of the job,” Ale says. “Even driving some nail technicians to have miscarriages. To me, that was so alarming, and I could not imagine going to my job every day worrying about my baby and my baby’s health. [For] a lot of these women […] it’s not an option to not go to work.”
In regards to prostate cancer, there is no greater occupational risk than working in agriculture. A 2003 study by the Journal of American Epidemiology states, “Farming has been the most consistent occupational risk factor for prostate cancer,” and links exposure to insecticides, fertilizers, herbicides, and other agricultural chemicals. The study examined the exposure-response relation between 45 pesticides and prostate cancer incidence, and found the chemical methyl bromide to be the most significant culprit. Methyl bromide is a gas fumigant used to protect crops from insects, rodents, and weeds, among other agricultural pests. While the findings are consistent in linking methyl bromide exposure to pros- tate cancer, follow up is needed.
A 2006 study from the University of Kentucky found “farming is more frequently asso- ciated with an increased risk of prostate cancer in North America than in other countries.” The study goes on to say: “Regarding specific farming activities, mixing or applying pesticides […] were associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer compared with non-farmers.”
Pesticides bind to steroid hormone receptors, which then induces proliferation of prostate cancer cells, the study says. But more research is needed for conclusivity.
“The mechanism through which pes- ticide exposure may lead to prostate cancer is complex, probably differs by pesticide, and deserves attention in future research,” the article states.
The ongoing Agricultural Health Study, an effort from the National Institutes of Health, has been active for the past 25 years, examining how pesticide use and other farm activities impact the health of farming communities in Iowa and North Carolina. More recently, the AHS found that daily use of diesel tractors is associated with increased rates of lung cancer,
and use of the herbicide alachlor was associated with higher rates of laryngeal cancer, among others.
But government safety and testing standards are, again, not up to snuff. A March 2019 article from The Nation found that more than 90 percent of Americans have pes- ticides and/or their byproducts in their bodies, and testing techniques are not comprehensive enough to properly assess risk. “[T]hough crops are often sprayed with multiple chemicals over the growing season, both agencies (the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration) track pesticide resi- dues one chemical at a time, to determine whether a specific chemical exceeds safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency,” the article states. “Since pesticide monitoring began about three decades ago, scientists have learned that even low doses of pesticides and other synthetic chemicals can harm children and that exposure to chemical mixtures, particularly during critical windows of neurode- velopment, may carry serious health risks that take years to emerge.”
A 2014 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office says the FDA’s approach to pesticide monitoring “has limitations.” For example, in 2012, the FDA tested less than one-tenth of 1 percent of agricultural imports. “Limitations in FDA’s methodology hamper its ability to determine the national incidence and level of pesticide residues in the foods it regulates, one of its stated objectives,” the report states.
While everyone is exposed to pesticides daily in the food we eat, it is those working and living in agricultural communities who are most at risk.
Coal mining may not be perceived as a “safe” occupation by the general public, but the full scope of health issues may be far worse than what is actually being reported. A 2018 investigation by NPR found that hospitals and mines are massively underreporting numbers of victims suffering from pneumoconiosis, also known as “black lung disease.” According to NPR, 99 cases of advanced black lung disease were officially recorded in the U.S. from 2011 to 2016, but the reality is that more than 2,000 coal miners were suffering during that same time frame, and in only five states.
Black lung is a fatal disease experienced almost exclusively by coal miners. Miners breathe in the toxic dust when cutting into coal seams, and as their immune system tries to protect the lungs, the build up of white blood cells leads to scar tissue that will eventually decrease lung capacity, causing cough, difficulty breathing, and worsening lung infections.
Depending on where they work, miners can also contract other forms of pneumoconiosis from silica and asbestos. Pneumoconiosis from silica exposure can cause tuberculosis and rheumatoid arthritis, a form or arthritis that causes pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. Asbestos exposure is known to cause the rare and painful cancer mesothelioma.
Based on a 2014 study from the journal Environmental Science and Technology, it can be assumed that people living in mining communities, even those who may not be miners themselves, are at a higher risk for developing lung cancer than the general population. In the study, human lung cells that were exposed to dust collected one mile from a mine adopted cancer-like properties, and when implanted in mice, promoted tumors.
According to Dr. Edgardo Santos, an oncologist at Florida Precision Oncology, black lung disease “is totally preventable.” Santos notes measures miners can take to protect themselves—regular showers, use of dust monitors, avoiding eating or drinking in areas with coal dust, and proper ventilation systems in mines, but if regulations aren’t properly followed, rates of black lung will continue to rise.