Epidemiology of environmental and occupational cancer

Oncogene. 2004 Aug 23;23(38):6392-403. doi: 10.1038/sj.onc.1207715.


Environmental carcinogens, in a strict sense, include outdoor and indoor air pollutants, as well as soil and drinking water contaminants. An increased risk of mesothelioma has consistently been detected among individuals experiencing residential exposure to asbestos, while results for lung cancer are less consistent. Several good-quality studies have investigated lung cancer risk from outdoor air pollution based on measurement of specific agents. Their results tend to show an increased risk in the categories at highest exposure, with relative risks in the range 1.5. A causal association has been established between exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and lung cancer, with a relative risk in the order of 1.2. Radon is another carcinogen present in indoor air, with a relative risk in the order of 1.06 for exposure at 100 Bq/m3. In several Asian populations, an increased risk of lung cancer results among women from indoor pollution from cooking and heating. There is strong evidence of an increased risk of bladder, skin and lung cancers following consumption of water with high arsenic contamination; results for other drinking water contaminants, including chlorination by-products, are inconclusive. A total of 29 occupational agents are established human carcinogens, and another 30 agents are suspected carcinogens. In addition, at least 12 exposure circumstances entail exposure to carcinogens. Exposure is still widespread for many important occupational carcinogens, such as asbestos, coal tar, arsenic and silica, in particular in developing countries. Although estimates of the global burden of occupational and environmental cancer result in figures in the order of 2% and less than 1%, respectively, these cancers concentrate in subgroups of the population; furthermore, exposure is involuntary and can, to a large extent, be avoided.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollution, Indoor
  • Asbestos / adverse effects
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Environmental Pollution / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Smoke / adverse effects
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution


  • Smoke
  • Tobacco Smoke Pollution
  • Asbestos