Potential Exposure Risks: Asbestos and Other Carcinogens

In the United States, most hazardous exposure occurs in areas where people spend large amounts of time: at work or in their home. The risk of potential exposure to toxins largely depends on location but can greatly increase an individual’s risk for cancer.

Carcinogens (i.e., cancer-causing materials) like asbestos can be found in homes and work areas – though there is no safe level of exposure. Many materials are just as toxic as asbestos, while other known carcinogens are safe to handle only at very low levels of exposure, for short periods of time, or with suitable protection.

Despite the passage of a spate of regulations protecting employees, work-related illnesses persist. Inhalation, ingestion, and eye or skin contact are the most common means of toxic exposure. Subsequently, occupational lung diseases remain high among all job-related injuries.

Why Are Carcinogens Dangerous?

Like asbestos particles, the danger from other carcinogens comes from the small size of the toxic particles. The smaller the particle, the further it can travel through the breathing pathways and into respiratory system cells. Once there, carcinogenic particles may kill the cell, prevent it from growing, or even mutate its DNA to become cancerous.

In addition to asbestos, the carcinogens listed below are also putting workers at high risk for chronic diseases such as lung cancer, blood cancers, neurotoxic disorders, and other, long-term health problems. The carcinogens below are grouped according to composition and the category’s general effects on the body.

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Inhalable dusts (often referred to as respirable dust) are typically broken into organic and inorganic categories. An organic dust generally contains the element carbon (except for simple carbon oxides, sulfides, and metal carbonates), and has or had some living matter. Organic dusts include particles from agricultural sources like cotton, hemp, moldy hay, wood, and others. Generally, inorganic dust is not made up of carbon (except for some simple carbon oxides, like carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide). Inorganic dusts include materials like crushed asbestos fibers, coal dust, and ground silica or quartz.

Coal Dust

While deaths from coal dust have fallen significantly in the 21st century, miners are still at an increased risk of developing a lung disease caused by exposure. Coal dust causes lung scarring, over time, and leads to fibrosis. Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, also known as the black lung, occurs in almost three percent of all coal miners.

Also, recent studies have shown that even people living near coal- or mountain-removal mines are at risk of lung complications. Compared to non-mining counties, people who lived in mining counties had higher rates of respiratory disorders, high blood pressure, kidney diseases, and low birth weights.

Cotton, Hemp, and Flax

Dust from cotton, hemp, flax, and other agricultural dry products can produce immense amounts of tiny, toxic particles. Typically, the processing of these materials produces dust that can be hazardous if inhaled repeatedly, for long periods of time.

Workers in the agriculture, food processing, and textile industries, especially those who work with unprocessed organic materials, are at risk of job-related respiratory problems. Byssinosis, also known as brown lung disease, is a common health problem with symptoms like chest tightness and shortness of breath.

Crushed Silica and Quartz

Crystalline silica (sometimes called quartz) is a common mineral that can be found naturally in many types of other mineral deposits. However, when crushed into a fine powder, silica can become a dangerous, airborne dust. Today, shipyard workers, sandblasters, and coal miners are at high risk for respiratory problems like silicosis due to toxic silica exposure.

Signs of silicosis include pulmonary fibrosis, thickening of the lung tissues until stiff, leading to shortness of breath and chest tightness. Being diagnosed with silicosis increased your risk for other lung diseases, including tuberculosis.

Moldy Hay

In the agricultural industry, regularly inhaling dusts from moldy hay, bird droppings, and certain other agricultural byproducts can greatly increase your risk for respiratory problems. Often, fungal spores grow on these materials.

Continuously breathing in spores can inflame tiny air sacs in the lungs (known as alveoli). Constant inflammation may lead to hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP), characterized by lung scarring and abnormal breathing. In addition to HP, this lung disease has been commonly referred to as farm worker’s lung, cork worker’s lung, and mushroom worker’s lung.


Like many other organic dusts, wood is a completely harmless material in most applications. However, cutting wood typically released thousands of tiny particles into the air that can be extremely dangerous to breathe for prolonged periods of time.

Today, people who work in hog, chicken, or other animal barns that use wood chips as bedding are at high risk of developing a long-term breathing problem like Organic Dust Toxic Syndrome (ODTS). Also, people who frequently handle compost, sort garbage, or process cotton are at risk. Symptoms of ODTS include difficulty breathing, fatigue, dry cough, headache, and nausea following dust exposure.

Other names for ODTS include:

  • Grain fever
  • Inhalation fever
  • Mill fever
  • Precipitin-negative farmer’s lung disease
  • Pulmonary mycotoxicosis
  • Silo unloader’s syndrome
  • Toxic alveolitis
  • Toxic pneumonitis

Liquid Chemicals and Chemical Fumes

Nearly every type of manufacturing industry uses chemicals in the making of its product. In the U.S., over 38,000 chemicals were registered for commercial use between 2006 and 2016. So many chemicals are used in the production of goods, moreover, that only a fraction are actively tracked and monitored by federal regulatory boards (like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration). As a result, many reports of health problems occur after workers or consumers are exposed to a carcinogen.

Below are common chemicals responsible for many of the cases of hazardous chemical exposure in the workplace today.


Benzene is a colorless, flammable liquid chemical with a slightly sweet smell. In nature, benzene can be found in volcanoes and forest fires. However, most people are exposed to benzene as a result of negligent human activity. In most cases, people inhale benzene particles in the workplace. Benzene is a known cancer-causing chemical and has been linked to lung cancer, leukemia, and other blood cancers.

Benzene is in the top 20 most commonly used chemicals in manufacturing in the U.S. Mostly, the chemical is used as a base to manufacture other chemicals. Benzene can be found in:

  • Chemical plants
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Detergents
  • Dyes
  • Gasoline
  • Lubricants
  • Medications
  • Oil refineries
  • Pesticides
  • Plastics
  • Printers
  • Rubber and shoe manufacturing
  • Steelworks

Coal Tar Pitch

Coal tar pitch is the liquid residue of coal manufacturing. For decades, coal tar has been turned into useful health care drugs to treat eczema, dandruff, and psoriasis. However, for the people who must work with or around coal tar and coal tar pitch, exposure can be toxic. In addition to workers in the coal refinery fields, roofers and employees in aluminum production are also at high risk for coal tar pitch-related health complications.

Skin cancer is the primary exposure risk to workers. Yet, cancers of the lung, kidney, bladder, and digestive tract have been linked to coal tar pitch exposure.

Flavor Additives

If you look on the ingredients list of almost any processed food, you will likely find chemical additives on the list. The FDA has determined many chemical flavor and color additives safe for human consumption. However, the manufacturing of these chemicals is often dangerous for employees, especially if they fail to wear proper face and nose protection.

Diacetyl, a chemical used to flavor the butter in microwavable popcorn, has caused a number of respiratory problems in flavoring plant workers. Long-term health issues caused by diacetyl exposure include obliterative bronchitis, obstructive lung disease, and trouble breathing.

Paints and Solvents

Chemical safety regulations have reduced many of the occupational exposures employees experienced previously. Nonetheless, paints and solvents contain so many hazardous chemicals, toxic exposure remains a problem in industries that use them heavily.

Consequently, workers in fields ranging from people in the Navy to employees in farmers using pesticides are at risk of chemical-linked occupational lung diseases. Affected industries include:

  • Agriculture
  • Chemical workers
  • Construction
  • Custodial
  • Mining
  • Powerhouse and utility
  • Railroad
  • Renovation and painters
  • Shipyard and maritime
  • Tire and rubber
  • U.S. military
  • Warehouse

Welding and Thermal Cutting Fumes

When metals are heated and cooled rapidly, hazardous particles are released into the air. Welding, thermal cutting, smelting, and other furnace work put workers at risk of inhaling the fine particles if they don’t wear respiratory protection. Vapors from these fumes have been linked to respiratory cancers of the lungs, esophagus, mouth, and nose, as well as several diagnosable breathing disorders.


The metalworking industry is not the only field to use toxic processed metal components. In fact, potentially hazardous heated metals are across a variety of industries like nuclear power generation, dentistry, and even children’s toys.


Beryllium is a silvery-white metal with a low-density weight often used by the aviation industry in cogs and gears. Its alloys are used in a wide range of other manufacturing industries to make gyroscopes, springs, electrical contacts, spot-welding electrodes, and more. Yet, beryllium is one of the most toxic elements known to humans and exposure can be extremely dangerous.

Over 62,000 workers in the U.S. are exposed to beryllium while on the job. Moreover, 11,500 construction and shipyard workers have an increased risk of developing health problems as a result of beryllium exposure. Typically, blasting operations release trace amounts of beryllium into the air without workers’ knowledge.

Beryllium exposure is most commonly linked to lung cancers but may also cause liver, kidney, heart, nervous system, and lymphatic system damage.


Cadmium is a metal found mostly in zinc ore deposits and used to make nickel-cadmium batteries, as a pigment for bright red, yellow, and orange colors, and as an anti-corrosive for steel. And, like beryllium, exposure to cadmium metal dust can cause a range of lung and other cancers.

Workers at risk of cadmium exposure include those employed in:

  • Compost workers
  • Construction
  • Electronics and batteries manufacturing
  • Metal furnaces
  • Nuclear powerhouses
  • Painting
  • Plastics manufacturing
  • Recycling
  • Waste collection
  • Welding


Chromium is a metal highly valued for its anti-corrosive properties. Subsequently, the metal has been used to strengthen iron and steel, provide coatings for other metals and wood, and in glassmaking.

Though elemental chromium is hard to find in our natural environment, oxidized forms are toxic to humans. Chromium-caused illnesses are similar to other occupational diseases related to toxic metals exposure.

People who may be at risk of chromium exposure work in:

  • Abrasive blasting operations
  • Battery manufacturing
  • Candle manufacturing
  • Cement manufacturing
  • Chrome plating and pigments
  • Copy machine service
  • Ferrochrome
  • Leather tanning
  • Painting
  • Rubber manufacturing
  • Stainless steel production


While lead exposure is one of the most-talked-about exposure risks, workers today continue to experience risk from toxic exposure. Lead is a danger whether it is inhaled, ingested, or comes into contact with the skin or eyes. The body stores lead in the cells of blood, bones, and tissues where toxic exposure continues for long periods of time.

Lead poisoning can occur in a very short amount of time if concentrations are high. Symptoms of toxic exposure to lead include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling weak
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Memory loss
  • Pain or tingling in the hands and/or feet

The Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have determined that lead is likely a cancer-causing metal. Additionally, lead exposure can cause long-term health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and fertility issues.


Like the other metals mentioned above, nickel is a useful manufacturing component to provide some corrosion and heat protection, strength, and hardness to other metals. Also, low levels of nickel can be found in the air, food, water, and cigarette smoke people are exposed to daily. However, high concentrations of nickel exposure can damage the nose and lungs, resulting in nasal and/or lung cancers.


Radiation is among the naturally-occurring carcinogens that can be found outside, in your everyday environment as well as from manmade sources. Workers in nuclear power, powerhouses, and the Navy are among those at risk of occupational lung and other diseases caused by radiation.

Ionizing radiation

When atoms are disintegrated, the resulting energy released is known as ionizing radiation. This type of radiation has the ability to tear electrons from other atoms and degrade them. While ionizing radiation has many beneficial uses in agriculture, medicine, and research, it also has the potential to cause serious harm to people working nearby.

Ionizing radiation, if not handled or contained properly, can cause immediate skin burns and radiation syndrome. Exposure can also cause long-term problems like increasing a person’s risk for cancer (even if the person was only exposed to low doses).

Ultraviolet Radiation (UVR)

Ultraviolet radiation is a type of electromagnetic radiation that we experience every day, naturally, from the sun. Long and intense exposures are known to cause melanomas and skin cancers in some people. However, man-made (such as tanning beds and welding torches) sources of UVR are often even more dangerous because of the concentrated doses they deliver.

Welders (and even people working close proximity to welders) have an increased risk of occupational diseases caused by artificial UVR. In one study, 13% of welders needed respiratory treatment for wheezing as a result of work-related exposure. In addition to lung damage, artificial UVR can cause some types of eye cancers.

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