Cancers Linked to the Tire and Rubber Industry

The tire and rubber industry uses hundreds of chemicals in manufacturing. During production, toxic fumes are released into the air during mixing and curing operations. These work environments can expose people to high concentrations of carcinogens (or cancer-causing agents).

Those involved in the production of automotive tires, appliance moldings, gloves, and other manmade rubber products may regularly inhale hazardous airborne particles at work. Moreover, they may come into physical contact with toxic byproducts. Consequently, studies show people previously employed in tire and rubber production have an increased risk of developing work-related diseases.

In 1989, tire manufacturing employed 54,600 Americans. Over 132,500 people worked in the non-tire rubber industry the same year.

How Are Rubber Workers Exposed to Carcinogens?

Tire and rubber industry workers may be exposed to a variety of carcinogens during several manufacturing processes. Breathing in or swallowing microscopic chemicals are the most common ways workers are exposed to carcinogens.

Tire and rubber industry job activities that commonly expose workers to carcinogens include:

  • Curing (vulcanizing)
  • Calendaring
  • Extruding
  • Inspection and finishing
  • Milling
  • Mixing
  • Storage and dispatch

Visible fumes and dust from rubber processing can enter the body through the mouth or nose. Also, toxic material can come into contact with the skin, causing damage on the surface and internally. Rubber-making chemicals like N-nitrosamine interrupt the normal functions of healthy cells. Consequently, contamination could lead to cell death, organ damage, and other serious long-term health complications.

The types of chemicals used in the tire and rubber industry change continuously. Furthermore, each company uses their own proprietary chemical mixture. A small percentage of these chemicals have been evaluated for occupational safety. As a result, employees are potentially exposed to a wide range of toxins.

Common industry chemicals include:

  • Asbestos
  • Benzene
  • Carbon black
  • N-nitrosamines
  • 1,3-Butadiene
  • O-toluidine
  • Phthalates
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Talc
  • 2-Naphthylamine

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Long-term Health Risks in the Rubber Industry

Generally, people with the highest risk for occupational disease have worked the longest in the tire and rubber industries. People employed by factories before industry reforms in the 1980s also have a significantly higher risk for work-related illnesses.

Chest tightness and shortness of breath are the most common early signs of lung damage. Similarly, emphysema was the most reported long-term health condition causing early retirement in rubber product workers studied between 1964 and 1973.

The table below links some cancer risks with tire and rubber industry job tasks.

Type of Cancer
Associated Rubber Industry Risk
Bladder People who weigh, mix, mill, extrude, or calendar rubber may have been exposed to 2-naphthylamine. The chemical increases the risk of bladder cancer.
Esophagus N-nitrosamine exposure in the reclaim department has been linked to cancers of the esophagus.
Larynx Asbestos, carbon black, and talc exposure among workers who weigh and/or mix rubber components have shown an increased risk of larynx cancers.
Leukemia Exposure to solvents (especially benzene) resulted in higher rates of leukemia and other blood cancers in several U.S. factories.
Lung Tire-curing and rubber mixing, milling, and vulcanizing can release large amounts of contaminants into the air. Breathing in these particles could lead to cancer forming in the lungs. High concentrations of asbestos, n-nitrosamines, and talc also increase the risk of lung cancer.
Lymphoma Malignant lymphomas, multiple myelomas, and other lymphopoietic cancers occur in higher rates among tire and footwear manufacturing employees.
Stomach Talc exposure, working near early rubber production processes, working in curing, and maintenance work are associated with stomach cancer.

Conversely, nervous system damage may be a sign of acute exposures to high concentrations of certain rubber-making chemicals. Breathing in benzene and 1,3-butadiene particles, for example, can cause blurry vision, headache, fainting, and seizures (in cases of extreme exposure).

Compensation for Tire and Rubber Workers

For decades, occupational exposure was an everyday hazard of working in the tire and rubber industry. Today, unsafe work environments can be reported to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Workers’ compensation may be available to people diagnosed with a work-related illness (such as emphysema or work-induced asthma).

Current and retired rubber workers who have been diagnosed with an occupational cancer may seek legal compensation. To seek a financial settlement, the affected individual or their family can file a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit.

Also, certain Medicare and Social Security benefits are available for people who become totally disabled due to a work-related illness or injury.

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