Almost 400,000 people in the United States are living with leukemia or are in remission. As many as 2.8 percent of cases are thought to be due to workplace exposure to cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens).
The carcinogens associated with an increased risk of leukemia are benzene, ethylene oxide, and formaldehyde. Ultimately, more research is needed to understand these chemicals and the various ways they interact with our bodies — and with other leukemia risk factors — to contribute to the development of leukemia.
Here’s what to know about these chemicals, how they affect the risk of different types of leukemia, and what you can do to minimize your risk if you’ve been exposed.
Benzene is a colorless liquid with a noticeable, sweet smell. It is a type of chemical known as an organic solvent. Organic solvents are commonly used to dissolve grease and oil.
This chemical is used to produce a range of goods, including detergents, dyes and inks, herbicides, insecticides, rubbers, and plastics. It is also used in several industrial manufacturing processes. Benzene is also a by-product of coal and petroleum as energy sources — motor vehicle exhaust contains benzene.
Benzene exposure can happen by inhalation, swallowing, or by getting it on the skin or eyes.
Examples of people who may be at higher risk of exposure to benzene at work include:
Ethylene oxide is a flammable chemical with a sweet smell. At room temperature, ethylene oxide is a gas. Ethylene oxide is used as a pesticide or a sterilizing agent and is frequently used as an ingredient in chemical products such as antifreeze. It can break down and damage DNA, which gives ethylene oxide its cancer-causing properties.
Ethylene oxide exposure can happen by breathing or swallowing the chemical. People at risk of ethylene oxide exposure include people who work with the chemical as well as those who live near industrial facilities that use or make ethylene oxide.
Ethylene oxide has been linked to an increased risk of lymphocytic leukemias.
Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable chemical with a very strong odor. It’s a fungicide and germicide, and it’s also used as a disinfectant. Formaldehyde exposure occurs by breathing it in in its gas or vapor form or by absorption of liquid formaldehyde through the skin.
Formaldehyde is frequently used in the industrial and manufacturing sectors, often to produce other chemicals. It is also a preservative used in mortuaries or funeral homes and medical laboratories.
Two million workers in the U.S. have jobs that require them to work in an environment that has formaldehyde. Formaldehyde exposure is a potential occupational hazard among:
Formaldehyde, along with other cancer-causing chemicals, is also present in cigarette smoke.
Formaldehyde is associated with higher rates of AML and chronic myeloid leukemia. Formaldehyde is also linked to higher rates of death among people who work in embalming or in other industries that work closely with large quantities of formaldehyde.
Risk factors may increase the likelihood of developing a health condition. However, many people with risk factors don’t develop leukemia, and some people with no risk factors do develop the condition. It isn’t usually possible to determine whether or not exposure to a particular substance is the cause of a person’s cancer.
Also important is when in your life you were exposed. For instance, chemical exposure while in the womb may be significantly more impactful than exposure as an adult. Research suggests that parents who are exposed to certain toxins in the workplace see higher rates of leukemia in their children.
It’s not yet possible to prevent leukemia because there isn’t an exact known cause for most types of leukemia. Avoiding factors that could put you at risk is the best leukemia-prevention method. While you may not always be able to avoid chemicals that are a key part of your occupation, there are ways to reduce your exposure to carcinogens to help reduce your risk of leukemia.
You can neither avoid nor protect yourself if you don’t know what exactly poses a threat to you and your health. Understanding which chemicals are common in your work setting is an important part of managing your leukemia risk. In some cases, employers are required to disclose which hazardous chemicals employers may be exposed to in the course of doing their job.
Various agencies work in tandem to regulate occupational cancer hazards and provide a safe work environment for those working near toxic or hazardous substances. In the U.S., employers are mandated by federal regulators to take protective measures against on-the-job chemical exposures. These measures could include providing and requiring protective clothing or equipment, such as respirators, for employees.
Employers are also required to keep known hazardous chemicals in the environment below maximum levels. These maximum levels are defined by regulatory agencies. Employers can take many actions to reduce the amounts of hazardous chemicals in the workplace. These include:
Because ethylene oxide is very flammable, highly explosive, and extremely reactive, equipment used to process this chemical usually has tight closures and highly automated systems. This limits the amount of direct contact employees have with the chemical and decreases risk of occupational exposure.
If you are exposed to benzene in your workplace, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has more information to help you protect yourself.
Screening is important for early detection and treatment of certain cancers. In many cases, the sooner you find a cancer and start treating it, the better your chances for living a long and full life.
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