Cancer mortality study of employees at lead battery plants and lead smelters, 1947-1995

Am J Ind Med. 2000 Sep;38(3):255-70. doi: 10.1002/1097-0274(200009)38:3<255::aid-ajim4>;2-8.


Background: This study has examined cancer mortality of a cohort of male U.S. workers exposed to lead.

Methods: The cohort consisted of 4,518 workers at lead battery plants and 2,300 at lead smelters. Vital status was ascertained between 1947 and 1995. Site-specific cancer standardized mortality ratios (SMRs) and 95% confidence intervals (95% CIs), based on the mortality rates of the U.S. male population and adjusted for age and calendar time, were calculated for the total cohort as well as subcohorts stratified by various exposure parameters. In addition, a nested case-control study of stomach cancer (30 cases and 120 age-matched controls) was also conducted.

Results: Mortality from all cancers was as expected (897 observed deaths, SMR = 103.8, 95% CI: 97.1-110.8). Mortality was significantly raised for stomach cancer (SMR = 147.4, 95% CI: 112. 5-189.8), lung cancer (SMR = 116.4, 95% CI: 103.9-129.9), and cancer of the thyroid and other endocrine glands (SMR = 308.0, 95% CI: 133. 0-606.8). There was a nonsignificant mortality deficit from kidney cancer (SMR = 63.6, 95% CI: 33.9-108.7). For bladder cancer, mortality was significantly lower than expected (SMR = 55.5, 95% CI: 31.7-90.1). Nonsignificant mortality deficits were also reported for cancer of the central nervous system (SMR = 74.8, 95% CI: 41.9-123. 4) and lymphatic and hematopoietic cancer (SMR = 92.2, 95% CI: 72. 4-115.7). Additional analyses by type of facility (lead battery plants vs. lead smelters), length of employment, latency, and period of hire were also performed. In the nested case-control study of stomach cancer, odds ratios were calculated for various exposure indices, and none was found to be elevated. Furthermore, no exposure-response relationship between lead exposure and stomach cancer was found in the nested case-control study.

Conclusions: A significant mortality increase from stomach cancer was found. However, based on the analyses in the cohort study and the nested case-control study, the increase did not appear to be related to lead exposure. A small, but statistically significant mortality increase from lung cancer was also observed. The small increase, in the absence of an exposure-response relationship, could be the result of confounding due to smoking, and was not likely causally related to lead exposure. Although the significant increase in cancer of the thyroid and other endocrine glands appeared to be consistent with an occupational interpretation, the small number of deaths (8), the lack of information on potential confounding factors, and the lack of reporting of a similar increase in other studies underscore the need to view this finding with caution. No increased mortality was found for kidney cancer, bladder cancer, cancer of the central nervous system, or lymphatic and hematopoietic cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cause of Death
  • Cohort Studies
  • Humans
  • Lead Poisoning / complications*
  • Lead Poisoning / mortality
  • Male
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced
  • Neoplasms / mortality*
  • Occupational Diseases / mortality*
  • Risk Factors
  • Stomach Neoplasms / chemically induced
  • Stomach Neoplasms / mortality*
  • Time Factors
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Workplace / classification